By Jack Dignan
I’ve seen three 2016 released war films in November. The first was Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s violent and inspiring true story of famed war hero Desmond Doss. It is, in every sense of the word, brilliant, and it will without a doubt end up being one of my favourite movies of the year by the time late December rolls around. The second film was Allied, which hits Australian cinemas December 26th so expect my review some time before then. I won’t say much here as I’ll save my thoughts for the review, but I liked it. I liked it a lot. The third war-related film was Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I sat down to watch last night at my local theatre. The thing about all three of these war films is that, with each one I watch, the quality seems to gradually get lower, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is definitely the weakest of the bunch.
Based on the book by Ben Fountain, we follow the story of 19-year-old war hero, Billy Lynn (Jow Alwyn). He returns home from battle, having done a courageous and selfless act in an attempt to save a fellow soldier, Shroom (Vin Diesel). We follow a day in his life as he struggles with returning home from the war and adapting to day-to-day life, and how the public disrespectfully perceives his experience in the war. His squadron is preparing to do a half time show at a football match, and as the day goes on, we’re shown flashbacks to the war, triggered by his PTSD, which his sister (Kristen Stewart) hopes he can use as a reason to leave the war behind.
While not based on a true story, it certainly feels like one. I can’t say for sure how accurate this film is, or if it depicts war more realistically than other war films, but from what I’ve seen and heard, it does. It’s ambitious and important, raising the issue of PTSD in a respectful manner. It shows the hardships of war, but more importantly, it shows the hardships of returning home from war, something several films have dealt with in the past, most recently American Sniper. It’s a depiction of public vs. reality, and the consequences war has on an individual, especially after being involved in traumatic, life threatening situations. It’s an interesting character study that raises some really good points and addresses things that need to be addressed.
When I say this feels like a true story, I’m referring to how authentic and well realised everything is. The characters are all three-dimensional, each one with layers and depth, no matter how minor their role is. They all have a history, and their relations with one another feel as though there’s a lot more to them than meets the surface. Creating a highly developed series of characters is no easy accomplishment, but with Billy Lynn, it’s well and truly achieved. Every singe person feels real, whether it’s Billy himself or squadron leader Dime (Garrett Hedlund) or even Billy’s dad (Bruce McKinnon), who appears on screen for literally two minutes.
The real problem with Billy Lynn is that is tries to do so many things, intertwining several stories, yet nothing flows. The main plot of coming back from war is definitely the best part of this movie. On its own, it works well. It’s well paced, relevant and interesting. However, the film throws a lot more into the mix than just that, and the overall film becomes one giant mess. There’s a love story thrown in with a cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh) that’s incredibly forced and quickly rushed through. Their relationship is rushed and hard to buy into, especially in the second half where it hits all new levels of melodramatic. A couple of other sub-plots are also thrown in, including some beef the veterans have with the football security guards and a movie deal they’re trying to make with Martin Sheen’s character. None of them work in the slightest bit, and they all cripple the story structure. The decent pacing is lost entirely, and the story is throwing itself all over the place so often that it becomes easy to get lost.
Ang Lee is a director I admire greatly. Over his career, he has made some incredible movies, most of which are highly ambitious. When it comes to Billy Lynn, he turns this simple war drama (well, sort of simple war drama) into an art house movie, and while I have no problem with art house movies, the artsy nature doesn’t work. It’s a highly stylized film, and if he used this style in a better-suited movie, it could potentially fit. Some films call for this style. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not one of them. It’s trying to be way too many things as it is, and adding an art house style into the mix just makes this film a little bit more difficult to sit through.
To sum up, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk works as an interesting and important character study on a victim of PTSD, but as a whole, it tries to do too many things, resulting in a gigantic mess of a movie that constantly takes away from the levity of every situation shown. I wanted to like this movie, but it’s unfortunately a big disappointment.
2 1/2 Stars