Let’s start with an admission: we’re watching Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 2D, and at 24fps at our local Cineworld. So we’re not going to be able to comment on its technical wizardry, not on whether the 4K 3D 120fps makes Ang Lee’s experiment worthwhile, nor on whether we agree with the critics who claim it makes the film uncomfortable to watch. But, as only five cinemas worldwide are equipped to show this movie in its full glory, our experience is more likely to chime with that of our readers. And so we’ll focus on the film behind the tech.
Based on a novel by Ben Fountain, BLLHW tells the tale of a squad of young American soldiers, brought home from Iraq for a victory tour, following the circulation of video footage showing their doomed-but-heroic fight to save their sergeant’s life. Billy (Joe Alwyn) is struggling to cope, ambivalent about the war, and unsure of much except his loyalty to his squad. They are rewarded with a day out: they are guests of honour at a football game, trotted out to stand behind Destiny’s Child to wild applause during halftime. And there is talk of a film deal, too: they’ll be famous, wealthy, given everything they need.
Joe Alwyn’s performance is subtle and nuanced: his pain is palpable. The realities of his war are revealed through a series of short flashbacks, sparked by the flash of a firework or a poignant word. It’s a touching story: he hasn’t much to stay home for, but neither does he want to go back to Iraq. His sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), tries to persuade him to see a psychiatrist; she’s scared of losing him and can see that he has PTSD. And it’s heartbreaking to watch him struggle with the decision. There are no easy answers here.
I enjoyed this film a lot, and not just because of the novelty of seeing Vin Diesel in a role where he’s required to act. It’s not action-packed, and there are no clichéd moments of wonder or revelation. It’s a slow, wordy piece about ambiguity, about what we ask young men to do, and how little we know of the toll it takes. The response to Bravo Squad on their return to the US is confused: they’re heroes, but they’re ordinary. They’re revered, but they’re mocked. They’re film worthy, but no one will pay them properly. In the end, they only have each other, and their instincts – and, if that’s not enough, well that’s too bad. It’s a fascinating story, and well worth two hours of your time.