As the camera closed in on Steve Martin until the comedian's exaggerated expression filled the entire screen, it belatedly occurred to me that Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is supposed to be funny. It is an indication of how unsuccessfully director Ang Lee has handled the film's bold juxtaposition of serious war zone and ridiculous home front that until that point I had failed to read cavorting soldiers and winking cheerleaders as anything more than passing comic relief.
In my defence, let me point out that Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is also a serious film, and what is admirable about it – because it is often an admirable work if also an awkward one – is the way Lee attempts to create the young soldier's alienation from civilian life in a series of rapid-fire flashbacks to the battlefield during the United States' disastrous foray into Iraq.
The film is based on the novel by Ben Fountain, one of those clever books that takes place in the space of a few hours. In this instance, it's the length only of a football game where Billy Lynn, a young hero who has been caught on camera defending his sergeant against Iraqi insurgents, has been invited to appear in the halftime show along with the other members of his supportive squad now on a victory furlough stateside. Well, perhaps the narrative device is too clever for its own good, because on film the plot – Billy's sister fears he is suffering from post-traumatic stress and wants to stop his return to Iraq – is shortchanged by the compression of the action.
What works well, as Iraqi grenades alternate with halftime fireworks, is the way Lee deploys sharp editing, unusual framing and intense close-ups to create Billy's alienation as a physical experience for the audience, a continual series of disorientations and dislocations both in Iraq and at home.
I can't say, by the way, if Lee's use on this project of the super-high-definition format shot at five times the speed of normal film would further enhance this effect – it's a format few cinemas are equipped to screen and it will only be used for three Canadian screenings. (Distributor Sony screened the standard version for Canadian press.)
But Joe Alwyn's performance is of a piece with the direction, segueing repeatedly from stunned vacancy to cheerful participation as the British newcomer successfully reveals a teenager continually trying to return from the landscape of his own brain to play the roles he has been assigned on the battlefield and the football field. As a 21st-century account of the soldier's enduring alienation from the home front, Billy Lynn is highly effective.
It's what surrounds that account that doesn't work, lurching as it does from a grim family drama cursorily observed to a big and broad satire of the United States in the early 2000s before descending into the very kind of sentimental militarism it has parodied.
Cast in one of those narrow contemporary roles to which her limited range is actually suited, the sadly plausible Kristen Stewart is severely underused as Billy's smart sister, the anti-war voice in a family of naive patriots. Meanwhile, in the football stadium, a series of broad figures – Chris Tucker plays a chipper film agent improbably trying to sign a movie deal for Billy's story as the football game unfolds; Martin is the self-important owner of the local team; various stagehands and fans insult the soldiers – play out an increasingly comic plot that strains credulity.
Only Garrett Hedlund, impressive as the squad's sardonic Sergeant Dime, offers the kind of solid but quiet comic performance that could possibly unite this piece. Approached by a Texas oilman who cheerfully explains that the Iraq war is great for his domestic fracking business as though his profiteering were its own form of patriotism, Hedlund's delightfully cynical Dime delivers a devastating rebuttal that blossoms into the blackest comedy: it's one of those moments where you glimpse what Billy Lynn might have been.