Director Ang Lee has given us "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "The Ice Storm," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Life of Pi," films with little in common except the important things: calm visual assurance, bittersweet magic, carefully observed worlds unto themselves. Lee's enough of a filmmaker, and a grown-up, to make even his misfires interesting.
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is an interesting misfire. It's also the victim of lousy timing. After the election we've just had, large mainstream audiences may not be especially drawn to a movie, any movie, skeptical of blowhard American jingoism.
The film comes from the best-selling 2012 debut novel by Ben Fountain, adapted for the screen by Jean-Christophe Castelli. In the studio's production notes, Fountain says the story came to him while watching a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football game, right after George W. Bush had bested John Kerry in 2004. That contest made him feel like he "didn't understand my country." The football game's halftime show, he says, struck him as a "psychotic mash-up of American patriotism, exceptionalism, popular music, soft-core porn and militarism."
Castelli's script follows the contours and syntax of the novel, which isn't as much of a virtue as that may sound. Specialist Billy Lynn, a small-town Texas 19-year-old, has been recently elevated to the status of national hero. The time is 2004. A cellphone camera, we learn in the prologue, captures his bravery in action in Iraq, during a battle with insurgents, the particulars of which we learn only gradually.
Back home, Billy and his fellow Bravo Squad soldiers embark on a two-week victory tour. They've been enlisted to take part in a fireworks-laden halftime show (the movie turns the Cowboys into a generic Texas team, owned by a steely millionaire played by Steve Martin). Joe Alwyn, a young British actor with a wide-open face and piercing eyes, portrays Billy, in a largely reactive performance of considerable skill but limited dramatic impact.
As Billy's rattled psyche processes the weirdness all around him in the stadium -- the screaming fans, the jolting memories flinging him back to what he calls "the worst day of his life"-- a separate set of flashbacks depicts an uneasy reunion with his Texas relatives, following the tour of duty that made Billy more than ordinary. Kristen Stewart plays his sister, the lone liberal wolf of the family.
A typical stadium interior shot in "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" shows us what Billy sees, as he scans the indoor horizon (or outdoor vista, in the Morocco-shot battle sequences), taking in the potential threats as his viewpoint swivels from left to right. Many of the conversations work like staring contests with the audience: First we see Billy, or another character (Garrett Hedlund plays Sgt. Dime, his sardonic father figure), looking directly at the camera or just over the viewer's shoulder. Then, completing the transaction, the shots are reversed. It's intentionally unnerving, and more than a little monotonous. Lee and cinematographer John Toll shot the project at 120 frames per second (very high), in 4k digital resolution. And in 3-D. But "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is being projected in its "experimental" format in a mere handful of theaters, and only in LA and New York. So the conventional presentation in 2-D (the one I saw) only hints at the immersive effect Lee envisioned.
Dramatically? The movie doesn't really work. The script is all too faithful to Fountain's florid brand of not-quite-human poetry. The thesis lines thud into place. At one point a movie producer played by Chris Tucker, trying to drum up screen interest in Billy's story, crows about how Billy's wartime heroics has everybody "feeling good about America again." What's past is prologue; Trump's victory should've made "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" newly relevant. Yet even with Lee's up-to-the-minute camera technology, too much of the film plays like an earnest cinematic hangover from 2007, the year of "Grace is Gone," "Lions for Lambs" and "In the Valley of Elah."
There is one striking exception to the movie's uncertainties. It comes late in the progression of Billy's flashbacks, and the scene, perfectly framed and grave in its impact, reveals exactly what was not captured on camera in Iraq. Here, fleetingly, director Lee shows us the human cost of war, both for the living and the dead.
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use).
Running time: 1:52