It's pretty much impossible to review Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk without directly connecting it to how it was shot, and how it was meant to be experienced. Ang Lee is a versatile director who's never afraid to try new genres and technical approaches. He doesn't mind jumping from costume dramas to martial arts epics, from tender romances to trippy rock biographies. Say what you will about his Hulk, it's still one of the most uniquely edited superhero films ever made. Life of Pi took 3D to a new level, around a time when the novelty was starting to wear off.
So it's no surprise to see Lee's name behind a project that attempts to put the audience into the shoes of an Iraq War soldier by using hyper-realistic digital photography. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, an empathetic if somewhat stilted drama about a soldier dealing with PTSD after a heroic act while appearing on stage during a football halftime show that supposedly celebrates said act, was shot in 3D at 128 frames per second. The intent seems to be to have the audience feel as if they're really there, since the higher frame rate can create an eerily real feeling without almost any motion blur.
The first problem with this approach is that it was very hard to see the film the way it was intended. Only two theatres showed it in the right frame rate and in 3D. However, missing out on the "true" experience might also be a blessing in disguise, since most of the people who saw it that way describe it as off-putting and almost nauseating. Maybe we're still not ready for hyper-realistic digital films, and need the artifice of cinema to feel a clear difference between the real world and the fictionalized one. Yet watching the film on regular 2D, 30 fps, doesn't work that much better. The pull down on the frame rate inadvertently gives everything even more motion blur than usual, and most importantly, the ultra-clean and evenly lit digital look makes the film look like a daytime soap opera. During a time when TV shows are adopting more and more cinematic looks, it's jarring to watch a theatrical feature that looks so much like TV from the first days of HD digital photography.
Aside from the technical problems, which I have to attribute to the infancy of the technology, or the audience's current unwillingness to accept such a harsh change from the film aesthetics that we're used to, while still having respect for Lee's willingness to push the medium to new grounds, the story and the execution of it is fairly decent, even if it doesn't really provide anything new about the tight bond between soldiers. Like 2006's Flags of Our Fathers, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is about the cognitive disconnect between soldiers and civilians concerning the various horrors and honors of warfare. Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is a soldier whose heroic act during battle was captured by a rogue camera. This turns him into a national hero in 2004, a time when the War in Iraq wasn't very popular.
In order to ramp up support for the war, Lynn and his squad are invited to appear during the halftime show of a major football game, and the film is comprised of intercutting between the game and Lynn's memories of the battle. The thematic core of the story immediately reminded me of the Eric Bana monologue from Black Hawk Down, about how politics go out the window when crap hits the fan, and saving your fellow soldiers becomes the only thing that matters. There is a lot of political talk amongst the civilians that Lynn and his squad encounters, but their loyalty always lie with each other. That's why the film's central conflict about whether or not Lynn will choose to be honorably discharged due to his PTSD doesn't hold much suspense, since it becomes fairly clear from minute one how that sub-plot will turn out.
The notion that the film doesn't really say anything new about the camaraderie in battle and what it truly means to be a soldier doesn't keep it from being an engaging and truthful experience. Lee has a knack for having the audience feel profound empathy towards his characters, and he invites us into the lives of these soldiers in a way that always rings true. The way they behave around civilians, giving the "right" answers about the war, clashes perfectly with the way they relate to each other, never afraid to point out the many inconsistencies between the public's adoration for the troops, and the way they are really treated by them. The even-keeled approach to these issues turns Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk into a drama that can appeal to both right and left wing audiences. It doesn't shy away from pointing out the many inconsistencies and atrocities of that war, while having immediate respect for the soldiers. In a way, you can say it's against the war, but for the troops.
As mentioned above, it's pretty jarring to see such a clean and evenly lit digital presentation in a feature film. The 1080p transfer does the best it can adapting the 120fps 3D footage into 30fps 2D. The aforementioned motion blur is a big issue, but my eyes kind of adjusted after about half an hour. Until Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk goes back to theatres in the way it was intended, this is unfortunately the best we'll get out of a regular home video presentation.
Lee's attempt to find a hyper-realistic approach really pays off in the audio department, as the DTS-HD 5.1 surround mix uses all channels to put us into the action, may it be an intense battle scene, or a sequence that shows the characters casually strolling through the stadium. This is vibrant and incredibly detailed sound work, and the transfer captures it perfectly.
Deleted Scenes: Ten minutes of deleted material. The film itself is already a bit too long, so some of the stuff that made it in could have easily ended up here.
Stepping Inside Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A 10-minute featurette about the novel that the film was based on, as well as the intentions behind adapting it.
Assembling a Cast: Another ten-minute featurette, this time about how the ensemble cast came together. The performances are pretty solid all around, but Garrett Hedlund practically steals the show as a no-nonsense sergeant with a sardonic sense of humor.
Recreating the Halftime Show: This one doesn't need much explanation. It's a brief featurette about how the halftime show from was recreated.
The Brotherhood of Combat: Like in many other military films, the actors had to go through basic military training. This 5-minute featurette goes over the actors' preparation for their roles.
A bit misguided in its technical approach, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk nevertheless finds some achievement in its goal to let the audience truly feel what it feels like to be a wartime soldier. The Blu-ray does its best to represent the theatrical experience.