Ang Lee ruins another great novel with horribly unfocused direction and a painfully apolitical take on an important political story.
The next time someone asks me to define ‘irony’, I’ll merely offer them a DVD of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Ang Lee’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s brilliant Iraq war satire is so laughably inadequate, horrendously misjudged and the embodiment of everything its source material overly parodies, you couldn’t make it up. Fountain’s novel is the story of Billy Lynn and his squadron, who are flung into a hurricane of crass celebrity at a Thanksgiving football game after an act of televised heroism. They encounter opportunistic billionaires, beautiful cheerleaders and- most memorably- a sleazy film producer called Albert Ratner, who pitches a film version of their story that’s corny and clichéd, ripe with insincere patriotism and emotional vapidity. Here’s the funny part, folks: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the 2016 Ang Lee film, is even worse than what Albert pitches.
Lee, who last bastardised a great novel with 2012’s Life of Pi, approaches Halftime Walk like someone who’s never seen a film before in their life. To call his directing clichéd would be an insult to cliché; this film defies cliché. Every seemingly-obvious move of the camera to maintain energy or highlight an emotion, Lee ignores; opting instead for images straight off C-SPAN. Presumably, he focused all of his energy on the 120fps frame rate (which- conveniently- can’t be experienced doutside New York and LA): it’s clear that he shouldn’t have been allowed near this project.
It’s easy to blame the director for a film this poor, but Lee really is the obvious source of Halftime Walk‘s woes. Newcomer lead Joe Alwyn is perfectly fine as Billy: he’s charismatic and believably captures Billy’s reluctant militarism. Similarly good is Makenzie Leigh (formerly of The Slap and James White) as his cheerleading love interest; though their scenes together- powerful in the novel- are ruined by Lee’s unfocused eye. On the other hand, Chris Tucker is miscast as Albert, who on the page comes across as the whitest man alive, and Steve Martin seems to have wandered onto the set by mistake. Also, it seems like a deliberate act of trolling to cast Vin Diesel as a Krishna-quoting guru half the actor’s age, who teaches Billy the ways of the universe whilst sitting under a tree. Kristen Stewart does her usual annoying ‘thing’ as Billy’s sister (a character who, even in the book, was difficult to understand). The standout of the entire piece, in a mere minute-long appearance, is Tim Blake Nelson: occupying a cartoonish Texan drawl, he inhabits the sensibility of Fountain’s novel more than the rest of the film combined, and seems the only person on set to have read and understood the meaning of the book. Fair play, TBN.
Examining the strange grey area between war and popular culture, and the dangers of confusing the two, Fountain’s novel has an urgency and unique wit that makes it one of the finest American anti-war novels of recent years. Ang Lee’s film, a colourless and pointless exercise in flat filmmaking, is too apolitical to make any kind of statement. While I, Daniel Blake, Moonlight and even Rogue One convey important political messages in a scary political time, Long Halftime Walk says absolutely nothing at all.