As the Beatles sang, “I just had to look, having read the book,” Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, was a terrific book, but Ang Lee’s film gets the plot points but misses the bigger picture. The screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli can’t hope to capture Fountain’s descriptions of the decadence of a Thanksgiving Cowboys’ game, but instead reduces it all to pedantic speechifying.
The film matches the book almost beat for beat. Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is a nobody from Texas who finds himself a hero in the Iraq War. He and his company, “Bravo,” are treated as heroes at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game. Their unctuous owner (Steve Martin, capturing Jerry Jones without imitating him) sees their story as something that can turn around the view of the war.
Meanwhile, Chris Tucker is an agent who is trying to pitch Bravo’s story to the movies, and Billy’s sister (Kristen Stewart, in her usual depressed state) wants Billy not to redeploy and get an honorable discharge.
There are flashbacks to the events of the war, when Billy was unable to save his Sergeant, (Vin Diesel), a Buddhist given to pontification. The surviving sergeant (well-played by Garret Hedlund) is a no-nonsense bullshit detector. The other guys of the company aren’t as well-rounded, given time constraints. But Billy does get to make out with a Cowboys’ cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh), who in the book was emphasized as an Evangelical.
The book succeeded, but the movie fails, to show how pageantry and meaningless spectacle does nothing to celebrate the troops’ sacrifice, but only makes them political pawns and extras in their own celebration. Frankly, I thought if this movie ever got made they wouldn’t get cooperation from the NFL or the Cowboys, since they are mocked so relentlessly in the book. They even keep the part where Destiny’s Child is the performing musical act, and we get a view of the back of Beyonce (it would have been great had she agreed to do a cameo).
What Billy Lynn may best be remembered for is Lee’s decision to shoot a version of it in 120 frames-per-second 3D, an odd choice for a dramedy. Of course, that is only available in five theaters world-wide. I saw the drab old 24 fps version. Maybe I should have made the drive to L.A. to see the other one, it probably would have much more exciting.