Film Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Scores on the all-important war, home and entertainment fronts, while garnering extra points for the new technology involved.
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The latest from two-time Oscar winner Ang Lee, TriStar’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk goes wide in a traditional feature format while doing an additional end run in five theaters worldwide (New York, L.A. and Asia) in 3D/4K at an unprecedented 120 frames per second. (Also a first: Native capture makes the new tech adaptable to all delivery formats, giving the film more visual clarity across the board.) This “shebang” version is much richer and hints at cinema and the theatre experience going to a whole new level in the future, if the stars align. Some say it’s close to an immersive reality experience, only without the cumbersome headsets.

Putting aside the technical wizardry, Billy Lynn’s story and performances, plus Lee’s direction and the quality of the production itself—however seen by viewers—are so strong that the film should attract the critical and social media attention it deserves and notch impressively in theaters.

Much credit goes to the well-written story and to newcomer Joe Alwyn, so stirring as young Texan Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old who, after hometown trouble and subsequent enlistment, finds himself serving in Iraq near the war’s beginning. He and his squad soon become involved in a deadly skirmish that takes the life of Shroom (Vin Diesel), an older soldier who served as good friend and mentor to Billy. In an act of bravery, Billy Lynn leaps into the fray to soothe his dying friend, then kill his attacker.

Branded as a hero, Billy and his colleagues, Bravo Squad, are brought back to America to be part of a football game’s elaborate halftime show, to be seen by 40 million viewers. (The words “Super Bowl” are never uttered.)

Billy takes a little time to visit his working class family in a nearby small town, among them beloved older sister Kat (Kristen Stewart). Kat cares intensely about Billy, who has begun showing signs of PTSD. The reasons for their close bond, having to do with a car accident, are gradually revealed.

Back at the stadium, Billy and his colorful Bravo Squad brothers—including the tough, straight-talking sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund) and specialists Mango (Arturo Castro), Crack (Beau Knapp), Holliday (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and Sykes (Barney Harris)—meet Josh (Ben Platt), the PR guy and assistant to sports mogul Norm (Steve Martin), their host and the owner of one of the teams playing.

Also in Bravo Squad’s midst as they prep for their halftime appearance is fast-talking, jargon-happy Albert (Chris Tucker), a showbiz operator determined to sell Norm on a movie deal about their heroics, which would mean some much-needed money for the boys. More genuine support for Billy comes from Faison (Makenzie Leigh), a cheerleader who catches Billy’s eye from the sidelines.

Albert’s spiels, the budding romance between Billy and Faison and the jollity among the squad contrast with many flashbacks to Iraq (Morocco stands in nicely), triggered by Billy’s trauma. Here, Billy's friendship with Shroom and their hellish war experience come alive.

Beyond the central skirmish, plenty of benign suspense enlivens Billy Lynn. Might Billy stay behind when his brothers go back to war, receiving the treatment Kat believes he needs and building a relationship with Faison? Will Albert's movie deal amount to anything? To enliven these plot threads, Ang Lee doesn’t clutter Billy Lynn with excess details. It’s never specified which football game is unfolding or which teams are playing in which stadium. The drama, even with a flashy halftime show unfolding around it, is intimate and immediate. Critical here is a pitch-perfect music track and production design. The film’s many rich elements all work organically to convey how combat, trauma and brotherhood impact one decent soldier and the roles love, patriotism and family play in his life.

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