Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a clean, colorful, and vibrant movie about the disconnect between war and the home front, fantasy and reality, but trips up in the execution. Its much-praised frame rate of 120 frames per second (twice the previous record) isn’t really justified by the film’s simplistic plot, and in some ways it looked like a film school project. Its stereotypical portrayal of soldiers undermines what it gets right about the relationship between soldiers and civilians. Overall, it’s entertaining enough to watch but not something you’ll come back to again and again.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is based on a novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, a 58-year-old writer from North Carolina. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment about it in relation to the film. While I was watching the movie, however, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that this story wasn’t written by either a former soldier or someone who served in the Iraq War. “This is what a Hollywood screenwriter thinks soldiers sound like,” I thought as I listened to the dialogue. Turns out my suspicions were correct, which explains why the soldiers were so painfully stereotypical. A writer often falls back on stereotypes or popular tropes when not informed by personal experience.
The film’s portrayal of the disconnect between soldiers and civilians, however, is very insightful. It’s hard to describe the oddity of being involved in something like the military, especially if you have been deployed in a war zone. Everyone has an opinion about it, even though they have no direct knowledge or experience. Even comments from someone who supports the troops and the war effort can seem awkward and embarrassing, and this film captures that beautifully.
Throughout the film, civilians approach members of “Bravo Squad” to ask questions or make comments, and the encounters inevitably turn painful as it’s revealed the civilians are clueless about the soldiers’ motivations and experiences. It becomes clear the pageantry and praise for the soldiers is more about the civilians’ own feelings than it is honoring the soldiers’ bravery under fire.
Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) comes closest to an antagonist in Billy Lynn. Oglesby is the fictional owner of the Dallas Cowboys who agrees to finance a movie about Bravo Squad’s experiences in Iraq. What he offers to option the movie, however, is much less than what the squad expected to receive. After a brief argument, Billy Lynn and SGT David Dime (Garrett Hedlund) turn down his offer.
Billy then has to decide whether to leave with his sister and go AWOL, or return with his squad, who will inevitably be redeployed to Iraq. He decides to stay with his squad. Then, in a twist ending, it’s implied he was shot and killed in Iraq, and the whole movie had been a fantasy in his dying mind of what it would be like to go home a hero (kinda shitty, actually).
Overall, the technical aspects of Billy Lynn were not as much an asset as advertised. While filming at 120 frames per second offers finer quality and detail, and I appreciated the movie’s bright, vibrant colors, it’s difficult to justify its high frame rate. Only a handful of theaters on earth are capable of showing it at its highest quality. Apparently in order to film at this frame rate, the director couldn’t afford to do multiple takes. Sacrificing “getting a scene right” in order to film at a frame rate higher than most theaters can even project doesn’t make sense.
In one flashback, Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and his sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), catch up at home. The scene is shot in over-the-shoulder perspective. When Billy speaks, the camera focuses on him and blurs out Kathryn. When Kathryn speaks, the camera focuses on her and blurs out Billy. It goes back and forth for the whole dialog. Simplistic scenes like that, combined with settling for the first or second take, makes Billy Lynn look like a student film.
Despite these deficiencies, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was visually impressive and featured decent performances by veteran actors Vin Diesel and Chris Tucker. Arturo Castro, who got his start in short films and plays SPC “Mango” Montoya, was a bright spot among an otherwise lackluster cast. Overall, Billy Lynn is worth seeing, but not on par with Iraq War films like Green Zone (2010) and American Sniper (2014).