If you create a film in a format that can only be viewed as it was intended on a total of six screens worldwide — three in markets that probably have little use for that film — did you actually make the film at all? Director Ang Lee (The Life of Pi) shot Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 3D and at 120 frames per second: a standard issue film is only 24fps; Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy was shot at 48fps. In Australia, we don’t even get the 3D 60fps version. With someone like Ang Lee, a genuine auteur, you feel like you might be missing out on something by seeing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in its most stripped-down form, but there’s still something to be going on with here.
Thanksgiving 2004. Soldier Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) is at the end of a two week “victory tour” with his unit, who were caught on camera performing marketable acts of valour. Billy and “Bravo Squad” attend the Dallas Cowboys game to appear in some undetermined halftime show while Billy’s mind wanders to two days ago — his home visit with sister Kathy (Kristen Stewart, Cafe Society) — as well as his bonding in Iraq with Sergeants Breem (Vin Diesel, The Last Witch Hunter) and Dime (Garret Hedlund, Pan) and, of course, the worst day of his life: the day for which he is being honoured.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a movie about moments: the past and the present. Billy can see what’s happening around him and what brought him there, but this is a film with no conception of the future. Tomorrow exists, but for Bravo Squad there is nothing beyond their next orders — and for Billy, just about anything could happen. The audience leaves Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on the same bearing as its characters: bemused, perhaps, but happy to have their company.
Longtime Lee collaborator and first-time screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli has adapted Ben Fountain’s intensely focused and interior novel in the best way that it could have been done for the screen, although the literal nature of cinema means that the ambiguity of precisely what happened on Bravo Squad’s fateful day is shattered, and when we’re told that something is “heroic” and that it makes you feel like the war is justified — you’re better off with whatever you can imagine than what a camera can actually show you.
Lee takes the opportunity to shoot everything in close up — often in extreme closeup — often to provide the illusion that you’re watching something in the first person, an illusion that he frequently dispels within the same shot that he sets it up. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has an immediacy to it that renders it more intimate. More important than place is the people, and to that end Lee’s camera absolutely loves the quiet tragedy etched into Alwyn’s face. While there is definitely less of the feel of the American people than there should be, perhaps out of fear of condescension to the “country of children who grow up overseas”, Lee has still masterfully captured the essence of Bravo Squad.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a film that had a lot of artistry entered into it, so it’s a shame that we have to get it filtered down; there’s only a handful of directors who have gone to the effort to make their 3D and technology mean something — only a handful who have gone to the effort of shooting their films in real 3D at all — and Lee is genuinely trying to make a work of art. The version of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk that we end up with is still pretty affecting, a quietly brilliant, intensely subtle movie.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk opened in Australian cinemas on November 24, 2015.
Directed by: Ang Lee.
Starring: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Christ Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel and Steve Martin.