There’s a scene at the end of Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” that never fails to feel disjointed and awkward, albeit on purpose. The protagonist, delinquent high schooler and part-time amateur playwright Max Fischer, is debuting his latest play, an epic tale from the Vietnam War with surprisingly high production values. The dialogue in Max’s play, “Heaven and Hell,” is stilted and convoluted, all those “-eds” that offend the common critic. Max’s play reads beautifully on paper, perhaps, but when acted out before an audience, when people have to actually read the lines aloud, as if they are speaking them in real life, whimsical mysticism thumbs over reality to a fault.
This is all to say there’s a big difference between the written and spoken word. That which is written is afforded a diligence and deliberation that allows for creative and expressive prose. Spoken word is messy and incomplete, with bits and pieces of thoughts hurriedly scrambled together to get one’s voice in the conversation.
This distinction is mangled in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” the latest film from director Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”). Featuring a screenplay with dialogue largely lifted from the original novel by Ben Fountain, “Billy Lynn” falls short as a biting war satire, as a drama and as a film.
The film follows the Bravo squad, a fictional group of American soldiers fighting in Iraq who become famous when a Fox News embed captures their participation in a deadly firefight. The footage is affecting enough to allow Bravo a brief respite from Iraqi combat; they go on a “victory tour” of sorts, culminating in a halftime show appearance behind Destiny’s Child at the Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game.
The soldiers encounter passionate patriotic fans commending their actions, which they saw on the news, while pledging fervent support for the Iraq War. Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) finds love in a born-again cheerleader, Faison Zorn (Makenzie Leigh, “James White”). And, perhaps most importantly, they’re drunk — very, very drunk — which is the only way they can deal with their impending redeployment to Iraq at the conclusion of their tour.
That drunkenness, though emphasized in Fountain’s novel as perhaps the only escape from the doom of military service, is largely absent from Lee’s film. Bravo squad, subject to a hygienic cleanse, is a sanitized version of their literary selves. So, too, is the dread of returning to Iraq, not as a prospect but as a satiric exclamation point that reduces the group to dead men walking, being celebrated for a brief stint at bravery. In other words, it’s hard to ignore that Bravo will be redeployed, but it’s only a looming threat, not a cosmic joke.
The film’s peculiar frame rate, which, at 120 frames per second, is five times the standard of 24 frames per second, compounds confusion. The motion is overly smooth, but in a standard projection, it’s not particularly dizzying, just a bit distracting.
Still, the frame rate seems to be innovation for its own sake, and it isn’t used to enhance the story, even though the idea makes sense. American society has commercialized the spectacle and language of war — the halftime show is filled with explosions and model rockets, and Bravo is asked if they’re “battle-ready” to appear in the show, much to the dismay of the soldiers. But, just as dropping a group of rowdy 20-somethings into the middle of Iraq is not the way to win a war, dropping a story into a crazy frame rate fails to advance cinema technology in any way.
The film is at times saved by its stars, who slip into their roles with a natural ease. Alwyn and Leigh do their best with a poor screenplay, but the rest of the squad, especially “Mango” (Arturo Castro, “Broad City”) and the group’s leader, Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund, “Inside Llewyn Davis”), give the soldiers credibility as a ragtag bunch of American patriots. Chris Tucker (“Silver Linings Playbook”) is hilarious as Albert, the Hollywood agent trying to turn Bravo’s story into a film, and Kristen Stewart (“Certain Women”) delivers a raw gut-punch of a performance as Lynn’s sister, for she is consumed by concern for her little brother.
Vin Diesel (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) is as good as Steve Martin (“The Jerk”) is bad, a surprising turn to say the least. Diesel is instilled with a calming patience that suits his military role, while Martin simply seems ill-fitting for the role as fictional Dallas Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby, playing the wealthy Southern oil baron with little affect.
In the War on Terror age, we need war satires to digest the last fifteen years. But “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” more a filmic experiment than full-fledged argument, falls short of what we deserve.