Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an overlong chore of a movie about a group of soldiers with a manager who’s trying to get a movie made about their experience. Yet Billy Lynn’s somehow fails to be a good movie about people in the military, Hollywood, or in general. It’s unbelievably dull from beginning to end, the script based on Ben Fountain’s best-selling 2012 novel is wrought with tired tropes, and not even the use of ultra high frame rate technology can hide the fact that it’s Ang Lee’s least visually-striking creation to date. I thought it would never end.
Newcomer Joe Alwyn stars as 19-year-old Billy Lynn, a soldier in Bravo Squad who finds himself becoming a symbol for America’s latest war after an embedded Fox News Crew captures a moment of bravery on video in a brief, but intense gunfight. After the footage begins to spread around the world, Lynn and the seven other surviving members of his unit return to the U.S. as war heroes and Lynn is given the Silver Star. The young men are then sent on a two-week Victory Tour, which culminates in a halftime appearance alongside Destiny’s Child (who do not appear in the film) at a big game in Lynn’s home state of Texas.
We meet Lynn and the men of Bravo Squad on the morning of the big game. Everyone around Billy seems happy, but there is something weighing on his mind. He cannot reconcile the fact that he’s being celebrated for the worst day of his life, and because of this he is forced to relive those harrowing moments over and over in the name of the American war propaganda machine. People don’t see a boy in a uniform, but a hardened soldier who knows what it’s like to kill a man and who might tell them what’s it like to do so if they ask. Lynn’s darkest hour is a trending topic in a time before trending topics, and all he wants is to move on.
The events of the day are broken up by flashbacks to the events of the battle that made Lynn a star, as well as scenes from his life since returning to The States. Lynn isn’t a soldier by choice, or at least not in the way you would assume. He’s the guy who never would have joined the military if he had any other choice, yet somehow he’s found himself in a position where he has literally become a poster boy for the armed forces. The only life he knows is the one he leads with Bravo Squad, and even though he longs for home—like his Bravo brothers—he doesn’t know how he will ever fit in again.
The metaphor in the title doesn’t make itself clear for a good portion of the movie, choosing instead to hide behind messages on the way we treat soldiers and the bond they share between them. People either put the men of Bravo on a pedestal or they look right through them. Everyone wants to know something, but no one wants to know them. They largely yearn to connect, but feel more like zoo animals on display than regular human beings. The delivery of these ideas runs the gamut from creative to incredibly heavy-handed, with many moments feigning to be more satirical than the last, and Lynn reacts to each with the same thousand-mile stare in his sad eyes.
Where the movie attempts to find its heart and legs is through Lynn’s past. His life overseas made him who he has become through not just the events of that now fateful day, but also by the way he was treated by those around him. Specifically, it’s a certain Staff Sargent (Vin Diesel) with a decidedly holistic outlook on life that changes Lynn’s world. He explains to Billy that there is no reason to fear dying in battle because if that is what the universe has decided then, “The bullet’s already been fired.” Every other line that falls out of his mouth is a zen 101 quotable, but that one comes up again and again, becoming a kind of mantra for Lynn’s life.
Alwyn is perfectly fine as Lynn. Not great, not bad, just fine. Also doing just enough to be passable is Vin Diesel, Garrett Hedlund, Chris Tucker, Kristen Stewart, and Steve Martin. The one true notable cast member is Arturo Castro, who serves as someone to relate to and comic relief through his work as Bravo Squad member Mango. I expect big things from him in the future.
There is just one action sequence in Billy Lynn’s—two if you count the pyrotechnics in the fake Destiny’s Child performance. The sequence is powerful and gloriously captured, but it’s an all-too-brief moment of brilliance amid a sea of melodrama to leave much of a lingering impact on the viewer. Instead, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk goes down as the latest example of a star-studded misfire from an Oscars-friendly director that the academy almost always loves more than the average viewer. If the film could have chosen just one or two things to be instead of attempting to be a satire, a PSA on PTSD, a commentary on war time politics, and half a dozen under-realized things it may have played out differently. As is, this is one walk that isn’t worth the steps.