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Film review: ‘Billy Lynn’ combines an awkward story with awkward visuals

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Two and a half stars

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund. Directed by Ang Lee. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.

If director Ang Lee’s film version of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—adapted from Ben Fountain’s acclaimed 2012 novel—looks somewhat odd, it’s because Lee shot it at 120 frames per second, which is five times the normal rate. Thing is, only a few select audiences will ever actually see it that way. For the rest of us, this half-earnest, half-satirical tale of Iraq War veterans performing at a Dallas Cowboys halftime show on Thanksgiving, 2004, will unfold like an ordinary movie punctuated by unsettling extreme close-ups (originally designed to create the illusion, in conjunction with 3D, of the characters being a few feet away from you).

Newcomer Joe Alwyn plays the title role, and he visibly struggles to convey the novel’s internal monologue almost entirely via facial expressions; Kristen Stewart appears mostly in flashback as Billy’s sister, who doesn’t want him to go back to Iraq; Steve Martin and Chris Tucker show up as parties interested in making a movie deal about the company’s heroic deeds. It’s an impressive spectacle in fits and starts, but the movie never quite decides whether it’s lamenting civilians’ failure to appreciate the sacrifices made by our troops or lampooning our desire to commodify their courage. Fountain’s book succeeds in creating a prismatically complex array of angles; the movie version remains stubbornly on the surface—a surface, moreover, that only a tiny number of people will view as intended.

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