That Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk exists at all is a bit of a marvel.
Director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) has taken the very internal novel by Dallas author Ben Fountain — a work that tries to get into the head of an Iraq War soldier who’s being honored as part of a Dallas Cowboys halftime spectacular — and opened it up into a surprisingly effective meditation on a soldier’s homefront experience.
It should be noted that the much-ballyhooed 4K resolution, 3-D, 120-frames-per-second version of this film is not showing in Texas.
In fact, only two theaters in the country — one in New York City, the other in Los Angeles — are showing this movie as Lee imagined it. As most films are shown at 24 frames per second, perhaps the best way to get a very rough equivalent of what Lee’s visual effect might be like is to think of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” films, which were made at 48 frames per second.
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Perhaps that’s for the best. Unless orcs and elves were going to be battling inside the old Texas Stadium — the story is set in the early 2000s — the technology probably would be a distraction and just get in the way of the very human story at the heart of Halftime Walk. I haven’t seen the 3-D version, but this is one case where it’s probably safe to say that the standard 2-D version being shown in North Texas is more than sufficient.
Newcomer Joe Alwyn is Billy Lynn, a small-town Texas kid who — along with the rest of Bravo Squad — performed heroically during a battle in Iraq. A news crew happens to catch footage of Billy fighting to protect his wounded superior (Vin Diesel), turning Lynn and his fellow soldiers into celebrities.
So they’re brought home to take part in a “Victory Tour,” including a stop in Dallas to appear in a halftime extravaganza headlined by Beyonce’s old group, Destiny’s Child.
In addition to showing Lynn and company getting ready for their big moment on stage, Lee — working from a script by Jean-Christophe Castelli — flashes back to the camaraderie and danger of war and explores the comforts and pleasantries of home, mostly through the presence of Lynn’s anti-war sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart).
But it’s in Lynn’s interactions with his fellow citizens, most of whom are totally disconnected from the realities of war, where Walk is at its sharpest.
Steve Martin plays the team’s owner, Norm (a not-so-subtle riff on Jerry Jones), who wants to buy the soldiers’ stories for a movie but doesn’t want to pay them much — despite his outward words of support. Makenzie Leigh is Faison, the cheerleader who falls for Billy — or is she just attracted to the uniform and the temporary fame?
Chris Tucker is the soldiers’ agent, Albert, who spends most of his time on the phone trying to put the film deal together.
There are the braying guys in the crowd or working as roadies who want to confront them and other, more well-meaning souls who can’t get beyond bland “thank you for your service”-style sentiments. The final insult to injury is that the halftime show ends up being as dehumanizing for Lynn as it is celebratory.
On a technical level, Lee has done a good job of skirting around the fact that the film wasn’t shot in Dallas (Atlanta substitutes), couldn’t actually mention the Cowboys, and didn’t have access to Beyonce.
But those details fade into the background because it is Lynn’s struggle to reconcile his experiences that keeps the film grounded in an emotional reality.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk could have stumbled on its run from the page to the screen. Instead, in 2-D at least, it scores.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart
Rated: R (strong language throughout, war violence, sexual content, brief drug use)
Running time: 110 min.