The military has been and always be a popular subject for movies. That’s because of the sheer variety of stories you can tell. You can tell good old-fashioned stories of brave men doing heroics, you can muse on the nature of man as they create all this amazing technology just to kill each other while you can just go plain anti-war and show all the horrors that happen while they fight for freedom, or oil if you are that way inclined. Anyway, we’ve got another one here now but can Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk match up to all the war film classics we’ve been given through the years?
While out at war, Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn, The Sense of An Ending) becomes a hero when he manages to bring his sergeant, Virgil Breem (Vin Diesel, Furious 7) out of gunfire and into safety. The footage of this becomes viral and him and his squad and are invited to the Dallas american football team’s Thanksgiving game in order to celebrate them.
Something I’ve been banging on about recently, mainly because many films have been so lacking in it, has been focus. It is probably the most important thing a film should have because without it, they cannot tell their narrative and whatever message they wish to pass onto the viewing public. And here we are again, because this is one of the clearest examples of a film lacking any actual focus in its message. Is this a film about suffering with PTSD after war? Is about the way soldiers are treated by the public when they return home? Is it about how corporations use them so they can seem blindly patriotic while ignoring their needs? I have no idea, but I know the film attempts to pass all three messages, but failing to do so. There’s a good heart behind the film, but it needed a harsher script editor to decide on what theme they wanted.
Because there are scenes here which could be a lot more powerful than they actually are. There are scenes where we see a supporting character get his PTSD triggered by the fireworks, and there is literally no understanding by any of the members of public. This should be a really effective scene, one at showing the effects of PTSD and how members of the public believe soldiers are literally bulletproof and shouldn’t be affected by anything mentally. But because we don’t know anything about the character in question and the fact the film has mostly been worried about this film deal they might get before that, it’s just something that happens and gets brushed after a few minutes. Just another example of the film’s lack of focus.
On that plot about the film deal. Basically, the owner of Dallas team Norm Oglesby, (Steve Martin, The Jerk) whose about as obvious stand in for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as you can get, wants to make a film about the squad’s bravery. This starts with lots of big promises before eventually being a complete utter dick to Billy and the rest of the squad. This is such a nothing plot it’s almost a parody. When this is first mentioned at the start of the film by their agent Albert (Chris Tucker, Silver Linings Playbook), it seems like an off-hand comment to develop his character, to make him seem like a blowhard who speaks more than he does. Then towards the end it turns out that this is the major plot thread, what the film is all about. Could have fooled me, I thought it was going to about the halftime walk that’s in the title!
And there are some elementary things that just irritate me as well about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. I get that even though this american football team is obviously the Dallas Cowboys you can’t actually lose the name, or else everyone involved in the film is going to spend the rest of their lives in court. But if you are going to go with the blue theme by having the cheerleaders dressed in that colour and the various sets decorated with that colour, you probably should have sourced a stadium that didn’t have red seats. I know this is a minor issue, but it is the sort of thing that breaks the immersion for me, and it gets right up my nose.
One thing this film does well is that it is a beautiful thing to look at. Ang Lee (Life of Pi) is a great director that does often put out a misfire, and this is certainly one of his bigger misfires, but he’s got an eye for a great shot, which is apparent here. The film is actually shot at 120fps, much higher than the usual frame rate films are shot at, and it does lead to certain scenes, especially the half time, being absolutely eye-popping. I can see this technique being used far more often but it does feel odd that this drama is the first movie to be made with such a high frame rate, really just for one scene.
There is something in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The messages the film wants to pass on are good ones and could make for a powerful film but this is a classic case of having their cake and eating it too. The film needed refining, pick one of those messages and focus in one that so it has a real impact. Instead you get all of them, but half arsed so none of them are effective. Maybe we’ll get them done properly in another film but for now, you have this limp movie that could have been a lot better.