Technical innovation can be reinvigorating for a filmmaker, but enthusiasm for it can overcome a director’s attention to the old-fashioned virtues of storytelling—coherence, depth, naturalness. Ang Lee used to be able to tell a tale in a compelling way, employing cinematic devices with skill and sensitivity, but in his most recent work—“The Life of Pi” and now “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”—his eagerness for new possibilities behind the camera seems to have blinded him to the deficiencies of the tale he’s telling, or at least the way he’s chosen to tell it.
In the case of “Billy,” the result is especially injurious, because the visual effect Lee was trying to achieve will not even be available to most people who see it. He chose to shoot the film, based on Ben Fountain’s well-received 2012 novel, in super-high-definition 3D, taking the format Peter Jackson introduced in the “Hobbit” pictures a step further. But installing the necessary equipment in theatres proved too expensive, and so apart from a few venues, the picture is being shown in ordinary 2D, which obviously blunts the impact Lee was hoping for.
That’s particularly the case since, in the downsized format, the movie looks glaringly overlit, and the proclivity for extreme close-ups—apparently a motif of the original design—comes across as oppressive rather than revelatory. This is not visually an attractive film, which is one criticism that certainly could not have been leveled at “Pi.” While it offers images that boast exceptional clarity, they also seem excessively sharp and, quite frankly, exhausting to look at.
Nor is there are great deal of compensation in the story, which juxtaposes the appearance of Billy’s infantry unit—which has achieved a degree of fame in the public eye by reason of an act of heroism by Billy on the battlefield—in the halftime show of the Thanksgiving game being played by the Dallas Cowboys, with flashbacks to the squad’s wartime experience. The point is to satirically contrast the pro-forma patriotism shown to the men on a brief leave home before returning to combat with the reality of the war.
During the trip back to the States, the squad is accompanied by an motor-mouthed agent (Chris Tucker) who’s trying to arrange a deal for their story to be sold to Hollywood, an effort that will ultimately center on the Cowboys’ effusively friendly but ultimately brutally pragmatic, greedy owner (Steve Martin). Billy will also be encouraged by his anti-war sister (Kristen Stewart)—who, it’s revealed, was a cause of his enlisting in the first place—to seek to avoid a return to Iraq by claiming to suffer from PTSD. He’ll also have a fling with a cute, perky member of the Cowboys cheerleading squad (Makenzie Leigh).
Unfortunately, few of these plot threads generate much dramatic urgency. To be sure, the combat sequence that Lee stages to finally reveal the details of the engagement in which Billy showed exceptional heroism can’t help packing a punch, but frankly it seems sanitized beside recent films like “American Sniper” and “Lone Survivor.” (It’s also difficult to accept Vin Diesel as a philosophy-spouting sergeant.) The Hollywood material is lightweight stuff, with Tucker doing obvious shtick and Martin bringing surprisingly little to the table as the profit-conscious team owner. The brother-sister dynamic is undermined by Stewart’s weak performance. The bits sending up the public’s vacuous expressions of support for the troops are rather empty themselves (Tim Blake Nelson seems understandably ill at ease in one of them, but others—involving hostility from members of the stage crew and the dismissive remarks of a couple of drunken frat boys—are positively weird). The half-time show itself is, as staged, a disappointment; it’s hard to believe that the soldiers are told to change to camouflage gear at the last moment, or that they’re herded onto the platform without a single rehearsal; but setting that aside, the actual extravaganza comes across as tame. Even the joking camaraderie among the members of Bravo Company never gets beyond the commonplace; the soldiers simply aren’t well enough characterized to bring their riffing of one another to life.
There are a couple of exceptions in all this. One is the work of Garrett Hedlund as Dime, the squad commander, a man of commanding presence and blunt opinions he isn’t reluctant to express. The other is the fresh-faced naturalness of newcomer Joe Alwyn, who conveys Billy’s internal struggles without resorting to overwrought exaggeration.
The long walk of Billy Lynn, of course, refers to his finally coming to terms with the actuality of his experiences and the new man he’s become as a result of them—all of it crystallized through the public-relations bombast he’s being compelled to participate in. Presumably Lee intends for us to undergo a similar, if far less intense, transformation—to understand, in some small measure, how shallow our armchair patriotism is when compared to the sacrifices the country requires of its real warriors. Unfortunately, the film fails to achieve the balance of sharp satire and dramatic heft that Lee was aiming for. Perhaps he was distracted by the technical side of things.