Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a well-intentioned misfire that cannot live up to its higher aspirations.
Following a victory in a harrowing battle during the early days of the Iraq War, Army specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and his fellow comrades in Bravo Squadron are brought back to the United States to embark on a promotional tour across the country before they are deployed overseas again, in a transparent effort to change the general public’s mindset of the war. Their final stop is in Billy’s home state of Texas, where the soldiers are the special guests at Dallas’ annual traditional Thanksgiving Day football game. Bravo Squadron is set to be honored at the halftime show, appearing alongside the hit pop trio Destiny’s Child.
As people continually praise the bravery of the troops and Hollywood attempts to negotiate a film deal to produce a feature covering their exploits, Billy is constantly reminded of the horrors he faced in the Middle East and how his experiences have affected him personally. His older sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) is concerned about Billy’s wellbeing and would prefer if he found a way out of active duty. With his time Stateside running out, Billy must make a tough decision and determine what exactly he is committed to.
Adapted from the bestselling novel by Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is acclaimed director Ang Lee’s attempt at a war drama. Lee, a two-time Oscar winner, has demonstrated an uncanny ability to blend outstanding technical prowess with compelling stories that engage an audience, so the hope was that Billy Lynn’s could be a standout entry in a classic genre and be a contender in this year’s awards race. Unfortunately, it comes up short. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a well-intentioned misfire that cannot live up to its higher aspirations.
The script, credited to Jean-Christophe Castelli, is a mixed bag. On the positive side of things, Billy Lynn’s does a good job of establishing a sense of camaraderie between the soldiers of Bravo. The banter the characters share is endearing and entertaining, making the group feel like a fully-formed family. Garrett Hedlund, who plays Sgt. David Dime, is critical in selling this dynamic as the leader of the team. Dime is one of the film’s strongest supporting characters, keeping his troops in line while also having their backs. Hedlund shows a nice range, getting moments where he is sarcastic, no-nonsense, and loving. While Dime and Lynn have the most screen time out of the ensemble, each member of Bravo is given their own personality, fleshing the team out in ways that feel natural.
Where Castelli struggles is in the structure of the narrative. Billy Lynn’s attempts to balance multiple storylines, and certain subplots take precedence over others. For instance, a love story involving Billy and Dallas cheerleader Faison Zorn (Makenzie Leigh) is heavily rushed and comes off as more melodramatic than earned. Leigh and Alwyn make for a nice pair, but the circumstances surrounding their relationship will make it difficult for some viewers to buy in. The screenplay also contains a number of flashbacks as certain elements in the present day trigger Billy’s memories of the reality of war. Some of these do work, and give Vin Diesel a chance to shine as Billy’s mentor “Shroom,” but the frequency at which they occur gives the movie a choppy feel. Because of this, Billy Lynn’s seems longer than its sub-two hour run time would have you believe, particularly since there isn’t much to the story to begin with. It meanders through portions and is boring instead of compelling.
Alwyn makes his feature film debut here, and for the most part, he makes for a decent lead. The newcomer’s performance is grounded, as he comes across as a humble, kind-hearted youngster overwhelmed by his current situation. As written, Billy is a bit of a blank slate designed for audiences to project themselves on, but Alwyn makes the most of the material given to him. In terms of the supporting cast, Kristen Stewart is a standout. Once again, the former Twilight star proves there’s more to her than the vacant Bella Swan persona, painting Kathryn as a concerned sibling whose biggest priority is looking after her brother. Stewart appears in only a handful of scenes, but she makes a strong impression and is responsible for some of Billy Lynn’s more resonant emotional beats. Steve Martin also has a nice turn as Norm Ogelsby, the Dallas football team owner who claims to be very interested in Bravo’s story.
Surprisingly, Lee’s directorial approach creates some hurdles the movie can’t quite clear. He expectantly has a strong hand at staging the various set pieces, such as the elaborate halftime concert and the war sequences, but not all of his decisions pay off. Certain aspects could pull viewers right out of the film (see: obvious “Destiny’s Child” stand-ins) and create a disconnect. Lee also can’t completely determine if he wants Billy Lynn’s to be a biting satire of the time period it’s set in or a more serious character study. By the end, it feels a bit uneven due to tonal inconsistencies and an arguably out-of-place meta angle with Albert (Chris Tucker), the man trying to land Bravo’s movie deal. Lee may have been better served doubling down on one element over the others, instead of trying to craft a mashup of styles.
In the end, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a mediocre war drama that aims high, but can’t stick the landing. For all its good parts (particularly the cast), the film has one too many shortcomings it cannot overcome, despite having its heart in the right place. Those who were intrigued by the marketing may be inclined to check it out, but as Oscar season heats up, casual moviegoers can opt for one of the other films currently playing and wait to take their own halftime walk at a later date.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 110 minutes and is rated R for language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use.
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