The Surreality of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

“I’m not here, this isn’t happening.”

That refrain (from Radiohead’s “How To Disappear Completely”) went through my head over and over again as I sat in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Ang Lee’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s 2004 novel isn’t a war film, nor is it an anti-war film. It’s a film about what war does to people, and the way we as a culture deal with those who fight in it. It’s also largely a formal experiment of filmmaking, one that doesn’t always work, but finds the occasional ability to drill and connect directly with your brain to give you that disconnected feeling. That “I’m not here, this isn’t happening.”

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk takes place over the course of a Dallas Cowboys football game. Our eponymous Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is the hero of Bravo Squad, a group whose filmed exploits made them American heroes and the darlings of the ongoing Iraq War effort. Bravo Squad is being honored by joining in on the Destiny’s Child Halftime Show, thanks to the high-priced machinations of team owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin).

While there, Bravo Squad deals with the gawking of the American public and their own trauma they sort through in the wake of the battle that made them famous. We also see Billy’s flashbacks to the war, and to the loss of his friend Sgt. Shroom (Vin Diesel), as well as to his return home, where his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) is trying to convince him to seek therapy and take an honorable discharge.

So, no matter what, part of this film is that I will never see it at full capacity. For those of you unfamiliar Billy Lynn’s… was essentially conceived as a part of a technical experiment for Lee. He would film it in 4K 3D 120 FPS, the whole shebang in other words. It was intended to blast the audience with a surplus of film tech artifice in order to disorient and create a slightly too real feeling to simulate the disorientation of returning home from war. Unfortunately, early reviews seem to point to it as entirely too much, simply disorienting viewers and overwhelming them from any focus on the film itself.

I didn’t see that version. Only two theaters in the country are capable of showing it at full blast, and any theater not showing it that way is showing it in familiar and comfortable 2D 24 FPS, leaving in of course the way that the film had to be shot and lit and blocked and acted to accommodate its original experiment.

Yet, I think that in that divergence, in having to remove it from the artificial trappings, there’s a sort of strange magic that comes when the film is transferred back down to 24 FPS.

It’s still a little different. While not quite as disorienting to the eye as an actual HFR film might be, there’s something visibly different. Movements are a little too smooth, your eye lingers over everything. Every inch and micromovement of the face stands out, huge spectacle has a sheen of unreality like everything is moving just slightly too regimented and fast. There’s something hopelessly surreal about every movement, the language of film seems just out of grasp even though you know it, like listening to a brand new dialect of English.

Whether intentional or not, the translation to 24 FPS had a profound effect on making Billy Lynn’s time feel all the more unreal. Nothing about it seems just right, the details pop out and linger in the near-constant POV shots. We catch weird things, weird flashes. Lee makes sure that things are just a little absurd, a commercial for Viagra following a forced act of patriotism in a stadium. We get this constant and crushing sense that things can’t be right, that we have come into a strange land. It’s a film more than any other that puts you into an emotional state, one that takes you outside of yourself. It lets you empathize and maybe for a moment get what it must be like to come back.

Does everything about it work? Not really. There was a lot that had to be massaged to get it to work with the original technology in mind and that includes story and performance. Some actors are helped by it. Joe Alwyn is well-along for the game as Billy Lynn, giving every inch of his face over to the film’s uncomfortable examination of his reactions. Kristen Stewart too is helped by the close and careful monitoring of what she does. Garrett Hedlund (as Billy’s gruff commander) seems blander than ever though, and Steve Martin is completely at a loss for how to hook into his character and the sort of performance he’s being asked for here.

The pacing is dreamlike for a lot of reasons, but some of those are that there’s a lot of attempts to externalize an internalization. We’re constantly trying to get inside Billy’s head, but the artifice is keeping us out. We feel the experience, but never Billy’s own thoughts on everything that’s happening. This is a film of details and examinations and gripping moods, but characters remain more elusive than many would often like, making it hard to hook ourselves into the specific effects on people.

Still, it’s that mood that makes Billy Lynn’s… something well worth chewing on. There’s a gripping dissociation, an almost virtual reality spectacle of the daze and fog of American nationalism, how it chews up and spits out those it seeks to hold up. You can’t ever quite grasp what’s happening. Even the war sequences don’t seem all there, the details are disconnected and fuzzy, either too mundane or too harrowing. There’s a sense in which the best version of this film might have no Billy Lynn at all, but rather starred you, dropped into this fever dream of 2004.

It’s a daring experiment and a tone piece unlike any other seen. It may not have quite validated its hypothesis, but it found something almost as interesting, a new inflection on the language. If only we knew what to do with it.

Grade: A-