The big headline surrounding Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the technology that was used in its production. It was shot in 120 frames per second, five times the normal speed of movie projection. Not that it should matter to Filipino audiences, because there isn’t a single cinema in the country that can project the film the way it was meant to be projected. So we are left to take the film on as just any other narrative feature. Taken on those terms, it’s just kind of all right. It touches on some complex feelings about soldiers and their role in society, but it never really seems to get raw enough to make it really matter.
It is 2004. Nineteen-year-old Specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) became a hero in the eyes of the American people when he was seen on camera trying to rescue his sergeant in the middle of an intense firefight. Now he is back in America with the rest of his squad, at the tail end of a national tour. The final stop is the big football game on Thanksgiving, where he and Bravo squad will take part somehow in the halftime show. At every step of the way, Lynn and his unit are welcomed as heroes, but the soldiers are soon struggling with what that means.
As much as we can’t really judge the film on its higher framerate, one can certainly discern that this film made different cinematographic choices because of it. In an apparent bid to take advantage of the added realism of the higher fidelity of image, the film is lit very plainly, and is more prone to using a POV shot from one of the characters. Perhaps this is amazing. I don’t know. At a more mundane framerate, it just makes the film look a little flatter than it could be. It doesn’t afford the film the opportunity to use more dramatic lighting to highlight the emotions of any given scene.
The film touches on the absurdity with which these soldiers are greeted when they arrive home as heroes, but it feels like it’s holding back. It could have gone into full-blown satire, or it might have hit harder as a human drama. But it instead chooses to keep a respectful distance from the fray, mostly reveling in the spectacle. There is deep irony in here, the film chastising people for not really seeing who these soldiers are and what they’re going through, while also letting them play second fiddle to a technological experiment.
There are good points made, though. And occasionally, the film looks past the spectacle long enough to get to the heart of the matter. The brief glimpses of Lynn at home are loaded with compelling detail, like the way the TV is on all the time, or the way Billy flinches when his mother hits the table. There is something reductionist in the stances taken in these scenes, but the heart of the picture might be in these fleeting moments of smallness. Joe Alwyn is solid as Billy Lynn, displaying natural charm even as he plays up his character’s growing discomfort. Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart and Steve Martin lend ample personality to what feel like underwritten roles.
We cannot see Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in the way it was intended to be seen. Maybe it works better when it is running at its full hundred twenty frame, the reality of these characters coming into fuller view as the more detailed image emerges. But again, I don’t know. Taken as it is, the film is just kind of flat, both thematically and artistically. There are little bits and pieces of emotion that get through the façade, but they arrive too sporadically in a film that wants to be about so much.