Director Ang Lee's Iraq war drama “Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk” exhibits a lot of effort on the look of the film, but the story is just too out-of-focus to work.

It doesn’t pay to be a visionary. Just ask Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, whose attempt to use ground-breaking technology on his latest film, the Iraq war drama “Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk,” was scuttled by his superiors. He wanted to create hyper-real and intensely sharp images of the battle scenes and the titular half-time spectacle in which Billy is being honored. So Lee (“Life of Pi,” “Brokeback Mountain”) shot with a rate of 120 frames per second instead of the standard 24. But that’s not how film critics in Boston got to see it. We saw it at 24, and that’s a shame.
Still, I’m not confident those bells and whistles would have helped much in propping up a clichéd script by Jean-Christoph Castelli based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 best-seller. A gimmick can only take you so far, especially when it arrives just weeks after the superior “Hacksaw Ridge.”

Like “Hacksaw,” Lee serves up a young man – in this case 19-year-old Army Specialist Billy Lynn – who is a reluctant war hero who bravely dodges bullets to try to save his injured sergeant (Vin Diesel). Fast-forward a few weeks and Billy, played with aw-shucks likableness by Brit Joe Alwyn, and his mates in Bravo Company are being paraded across the nation on a propaganda tour culminating with an NFL half-time show in Dallas. Joining them onstage is Destiny’s Child (anonymously shown in the film only from behind). A horribly miscast Steve Martin plays the Jerry Jones-ish team owner who also wants to turn the soldiers’ story into a movie and insults them in the process.

Lee oscillates between battle scenes in Iraq and the spectacle of the halftime soiree. At times, the quick dip back into civilian life proves more harrowing than the battlefield, as the soldiers are ambushed by well-meaning but annoying folks asking how we’re really doing over there. The soldiers are paraded around in their dress uniforms meeting the press, cheerleaders, the players, etc. They’re a five-man sideshow, which speaks volumes about America’s appetite for amusement and how detached we really are from our soldiers. When a reporter asks Billy how it feels to earn the Silver Star for valor, he replies: “I’m being honored for the worst day of my life.”

In her part as Billy’s pacifist sister, Kristen Stewart (“Clouds of Sils Maria”) rattles off the film’s anti-war talking points. Garrett Hedlund (“Unbroken”) is the film’s standout, sharp and protective as the unit’s commander, Sgt. Dime. In reply to a Texas oil man, Dime says, “You keep on drilling, sir, and we’ll keep on killing,” in case you were wondering which side of the aisle the film’s viewpoint falls. A surprisingly good Chris Tucker (“Rush Hour”) plays the soldiers’ agent, trying to negotiate the movie deal. Makenzie Leigh (“James White”) is the pretty cheerleader who catches Billy’s eye. NFL players J.J Watt and Richard Sherman show up as Dallas football players.

Lee relies on close-ups with the actors speaking directly to the camera – something that’s supposed to enhance the storytelling in the film’s original super high-def 120-frame format. (For comparison sake, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies were shot at 48 frames per second.) At 24 frames, it looks creepy, invasive and suffocating. There are lots of shots of Billy’s anguished face, yet his budding PTSD and overall disillusionment are never developed. Ditto for the others. Another problem is that the story builds to its climatic halftime show and then nothing happens. Lee exhibits a lot of effort on the look of the film, but the story is just too out-of-focus to work.

Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALF-TIME WALK (R, for language throughout, some war violence, sexual content and brief drug use.) Cast: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker. Grade: C+