By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
There has been considerable hype regarding the shooting process of Ang Lee’s latest venture, but due to the lack of cinema chains that can actually show the film as intended, what we eventually end up with is a partially deflated big screen experience. It’s quite unfortunate, as there is a lot to admire about the director’s typically focused style and what he wants to accomplish.
The story centres on Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a young soldier from Texas who, along with his Bravo unit, are enjoying two weeks leave back home, mainly due to the heroic actions of Lynn, who was captured on film trying to save his sergeant (Vin Diesel) from enemy fire. Invited to appear at the half time show at the 2004 Super Bowl by local entrepreneur Norm (Steve Martin), we also see that hot-shot agent Albert (Chris Tucker) is trying to sell their story to Hollywood.
As the sports spectacular plays out, a variety of viewpoints are delivered by a wide mix of the population, causing the soldiers to feel relatively proud at first. But as the superficial nature of the televised extravaganza becomes apparent, the group increasingly feel more like outsiders, leading to an overwhelming desire to return to a conflict that makes no sense. Additionally, there is obviously something within Billy that is damaged, blackened by what he has encountered in Iraq, but also tarnished by the attitudes of those around him who have no idea what he has sacrificed.
The basic premise is set over one day, but as we enter the headspace of the title character, we are taken on an inner journey through important moments in Billy’s post-recruited life. These include interactions between Billy and his Iraq unit, and those that occur with his family, mainly his older sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), whose views on the war are less than positive.
Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk is both a fascinating and frustrating viewing event. Although seeing the film at the traditional 24fps frame rate and in 2D, I continually attempted to imagine what it would be like with the 4K clarity and 3D process, and it helped me appreciate Lee’s vision to a certain extent. One has to wonder though if Lee should have left this experiment for a later date, especially when only five theatres in the world can project the movie in the correct manner.
Shot largely in close up, with cameras set strategically in cars, jeeps, crowds, and war zones, the Oscar-winning film-maker wants the audience to be as close to the characters as humanly possible. It does take a little while to get used to actors frequently looking directly into the camera, a device that would have worked perfectly fine in its intended viewing format, but as a standard theatrical presentation it comes off as a little stiff and surreal. One can clearly see that if the audience were able to see the film properly, it would have been an uncomfortably personal, almost virtual reality-style encounter, exploring the disconnection and pain suffered by so many soldiers, a number of which were afflicted with PTSD.
What has been denied us visually is certainly made up for through the film’s extraordinary sound design. Whether it is close-quarters gunfire, the shouts among the football crowd, or Billy’s mother slamming her hand down on the kitchen table, it generates an environment that keeps us on edge, and is used to sometimes startling effect.
I have not read the original novel, but some of the dialogue feels heavy-handed and stilted, yet once again this reaction may be because of Lee’s very specific directorial approach. The entire setting and the unit’s token place within it does remind one of Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers.
Unusual for an Ang Lee film, performances appear variable, but he has noticeably directed them to fit within the framework of the cutting-edge technology used, so I don’t want to criticise any cast members until I’m able to see the film the way it was meant to be seen. I will say however that Diesel failed to convince me that his character would entrance Billy so emphatically. He may be a huge action star, but the role needed someone with true charisma and presence, as Sergeant Shroom’s fatherly persona leads Billy to make some pivotal decisions.
Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk will most likely be dismissed as a misfire by many people, and on the surface one can understand their point of view. But until we can all experience the film the way Ang Lee intended, it has to be classed as a work-in-progress. As incomplete as that may sound, we owe this unique film-maker the benefit of the doubt, especially when there is definite good in what has been presented to us.
Kathryn Lynn: Billy, what if you don’t go?
Billy Lynn: I have to, Kat. I made a commitment.
Billy Lynn: I’ve still got a long walk ahead of me.
Faison: Then I will be waiting for you.