Entertainment Movies Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Revolutionary or unwatchable?

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Revolutionary or unwatchable?

billy lynn's long half time walk
Newcomer Joe Alwyn (pictured) plays a teenage Iraq war hero. Photo: Sony Pictures
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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the new film from Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, has been described as “revolutionary” by some for its high-quality appearance – but critics have branded it “unwatchable”.

Shot at 120 frames per second (five times the speed of a normal film), the movie is being shown in 3D and 4K definition at New York and Los Angeles screenings, using technology that’s not yet been used in cinemas.

Unfortunately for Australians, we only get to see it in traditional format, but the quality is still incredibly high – which may prove a poisoned chalice for Billy Lynn.

Even without its hyper-real appearance, the movie is hard to stomach for its confronting subject matter, which examines the phenomenon of post-traumatic stress disorder among US military veterans.

Newcomer Joe Alwyn stars as Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old soldier serving in Iraq who was hailed a hero when he came to the aid of his dying sergeant despite the threat of enemy fire.

Lynn, along with his Bravo Squad comrades, is invited to be part of the half-time show at a major Thanksgiving NFL match so Americans can pay their respects.

At the heart of the movie is a powerful message about the commercialisation of war and the public’s desire to invest in the stories of war heroes, even if it’s at the cost of these heroes’ wellbeing.

The film moves between the present-day, as the Bravos prepare for their appearance in a packed football stadium, and Billy’s flashbacks to the horrors of conflict in Iraq, as well as the growing tension in his dysfunctional family home.

All of this makes for uncomfortable viewing at the best of times. Throw in the fact you can see every bead of sweat, every bloodshot eye and every blood-soaked limb in all its realistic glory, and the film is close to unwatchable.

The movie is startling and, at times, overwhelming, in its clarity. Photo: Sony Pictures
The movie is startling and, at times, overwhelming, in its clarity. Photo: Sony Pictures

Lee and cinematographer John Toll have taken full advantage of the format afforded them, often lingering on close-ups of Alwyn and his co-stars, including Garret Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart and Steve Martin.

Painful to watch

It’s painful to watch the sweet, mild-mannered Lynn pushed about like a chess piece in the stadium spectacular, forced to endure triggering fireworks displays and cheesy dance routines to the tune of Destiny’s Child’s hit song Soldier.

Unfortunately, a lot of the power of the film’s message gets lost in messy background-building, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing for curiosity’s sake. This is, after all, meant to be the “future of cinema”.

Garrett Hedlund is a standout as Billy Lynn's steely sergeant, Dime. Photo: Sony Pictures
Garrett Hedlund is a standout as Billy Lynn’s steely sergeant, Dime. Photo: Sony Pictures

Powerful performances from Alwyn, Stewart and Hedlund tug at the heartstrings, plus watching the bizarre reality of warfare without all the CGI is certainly compelling.

Lee has urged audiences to approach his film with an “open mind”, but many critics who’ve seen it in all its 4K, 3D glory have struggled to praise it.

“I’m sorry. I tried to keep an open mind,” film critic Bilge Ebiri tweeted. “But High Frame Rate is a f***ing crime against cinema.”

Slate reviewer Daniel Engber wrote: “Panning shots no longer blur the background with their motion; cuts seem extra jagged.

“As a viewer, it felt like reading a book in which all the commas and periods had been put in bold and underlined.”

Ang Lee's (far right) camera has captured every scar and every wrinkle. Photo: Sony Pictures
Ang Lee’s (far right) camera has captured every scar and every wrinkle. Photo: Sony Pictures

Stripped of its “groundbreaking” clarity, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk would be an interesting, original film with something to say.

Unfortunately, Lee’s efforts to change the game have led to the film being more of a bizarre spectacle than the cultural statement it could have been.

In Lee’s defence, mainstream audiences rarely embrace change with open arms – we often prefer to sit comfortably in our ignorant enjoyment of airbrushed action movies (after all – that’s why we go to movies, to escape!).

Perhaps Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will seem more revolutionary in hindsight.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is in cinemas November 24.

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