While not groundbreaking in its narrative, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk builds as it goes, leading to an effective, emotional payoff, thanks to a stellar cast. But this is more of an antiwar film exploring the perceptions—true and false—of the meaning of heroism. 3.5 out of 5.
Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is a 19-year-old Iraq War hero, sent back to the United States to be honored for his service. While waiting to take part in a halftime show during a football game, Billy struggles with flashbacks to combat and to the memories of his family and of his sister, who wants Billy to find a way to stay in the United States rather than return to battle. Imagining a life of peace in the United States and the possibility of love with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh), Billy wrestles with his calling as a soldier and a growing sense of disillusionment with the war and the way the American public perceives it.
Alwyn brings an innocence to the title character that humanizes him, while Garrett Hedlund has his best role yet as Lynn's sergeant. Kristen Stewart, as Lynn's anguished sister, makes the most of a small, key role. Even better is director Ang Lee's staging of the central battle that Lynn recalls while participating at a football-game halftime show. Again, although the war footage isn't anything we haven't seen before, it includes shocking, traumatizing moments that bring home the violent reality of what Lynn experienced.
The story starts slowly and feels too familiar in its banter between soldiers and the use of them on the home front as PR for the war. It's similar to Clint Eastwood's underwhelming Flags of Our Fathers, although Lee (Life of Pi) is going for something more visually ambitious than Eastwood. Lee shot Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 3D and at a high frame rate (120 frames per second) to give the film a hyper-real quality, yet the standard projection rate at which the film screened (only a few U.S. theaters are equipped to play the film at the higher frame rate) hinders any impact from the intended presentation.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
Billy's sister and a cheerleader tell him they pray for him, but the words, like most of the words from those on the home front, come across as hollow to Billy and his fellow soldiers.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use
- Language/Profanity: Several misuses of the Lord’s name; “god-am-”; multiple f-words; discussion of “freebies,” strippers and lap dances; a variety of foul language, including the s-word, a-word; “shut the hell up”; “penis”; crude references to oral sex.
- Sexuality/Nudity: Billy's sister teases him that he's still a virgin, and says that he, like she, should be “getting some”; she jests about picking up “high school boys”; Billy says it looks like he’ll die a virgin; cheerleader garb is revealing, and Billy and a cheerleader are shown rolling under the covers, having sex; a soldier explains why he got married.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: Billy’s sister threatens to kill herself; a soldier puts a man in a headlock until he’s unconscious; intense war battle scenes include shooting, a missile launcher and hand-to-hand-combat; a stabbing.
Drugs/Alcohol: A couple of scenes of drinking; Billy’s sister says they could go out back at their house and drink some beer; Billy and other touring vets smoke a joint.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of war movies that extol bravery and heroism have Hacksaw Ridge available in theaters now. This film is more for those who want to join Ang Lee in exploring the distance between the soldier's firsthand experience of war and the public's perception of their efforts. Movie buffs and fans of Lee will want to see why he thought this story would make for a new type of cinematic experience, even if they can't view it in the high frame rate Lee intended.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Audiences who have had their fill of movies about the Iraq War or of films that present conflicted views on combat and patriotism.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, directed by Ang Lee, opened in limited theaters November 11, 2016, wider November 18; available for home viewing February 14, 2017. It runs 112 minutes and stars Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Makenzie Leigh, Vin Diesel and Steve Martin. Watch the trailer for Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk here.
Christian Hamaker brings a background in both Religion (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) and Film/Popular Culture (B.A., Virginia Tech) to his reviews. He still has a collection of more than 100 laserdiscs, and for DVDs patronizes the local library. Streaming? What is this "streaming" of which you speak? He'll figure it out someday. Until then, his preferred viewing venue is a movie theater. Christian is happily married to Sarah, a parent coach and author of Hired@Home and Ending Sibling Rivalry.
Publication date: November 16, 2016