How much do we really want to know about what happens to soldiers in war? On the evidence of "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," as little as possible, even as we're selling glory and sacrifice as feel-good nostrums for the folks back home.
Ironically, the movie has its own problems with reality. It has been brought to the screen by one of our most talented filmmakers, Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Brokeback Mountain," "Life of Pi"), in a style and a technique that effectively neuter it.
Based on a popular and very effective 2012 novel of the same name, the film follows an eight-man US squad in the Iraq War that is airlifted home for a glitzy tour of the States after a heroic act by one of their number goes viral.
The central character, Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn, open-faced and empathetic), was caught on cellphone video dragging a fellow soldier to safety. With "the Battle of Al-Ansakar" gone prime-time, the squad is given the modern equivalent of a ticker-tape parade: endless media interviews and, as the movie begins, an appearance at the halftime show for a second-rate (and fictional) Texas NFL football team. It's 2004 and they'll be lined up onstage while Destiny's Child and the group's rising singer, Beyoncé Knowles, perform.
The soldiers are properly cynical, even sweet, corn-fed Billy, who only enlisted to avoid going to jail for beating up the no-good boyfriend of his sister (Kristen Stewart). The second-wisest among them is Billy's friend, specialist Marcellino "Mango" Montoya (Arturo Castro), with whom Billy and a football stadium employee — Latino, as is Mango — share a joint on a seating tier that pointedly faces nowhere.
The wisest is Sergeant Dime, low-voiced and clear-eyed and played, in a movie-stealing turn, by Garrett Hedlund. Dime sees through the hollow cant of the film's pink-faced homefront patriots, and you know he's just biding his time, waiting for the big fish to swim into view so he can harpoon it.
Except for flashbacks, the movie takes place entirely at the football game, with much backstage swirling about. There's a movie deal in the works, or there may be if wannabe producer Albert (Chris Tucker) can get a star attached. Steve Martin swans through as the fatuous but powerful owner of the football team, and there's a hot little number on the cheerleading squad (Makenzie Leigh) who likes Billy almost as much as she loves Jesus. That said, the real deity in this movie is probably Beyoncé, since the camera can't even bring itself to look her in the face.
The boys are clapped on the back and wept over and asked probing, stupid questions about their experiences, and no one actually wants to know, and even if they did, there's no way to adequately tell them. The book — and, as far as it's able, the movie — is about the sadness and anger of disconnect, about how these boy-men doing our national will in far-off countries understand we can't and (worse) won't comprehend the truth of what "patriotism" really looks like on a battlefield. It's about the American way of denial.
Directing the film version, Lee gets lost in the grotesque pomp of the halftime spectacle and its lead-up. He gets fine performances from the actors playing the soldiers and a terrible one from Stewart, who flails her arms like an amateur. Martin's role is beneath his talents, while Vin Diesel's, as a Zen warrior of a sergeant, is almost beyond belief.
Most cruelly, Lee has decided to shoot the film in high-frame-rate digital video, at 120 frames per second, when the cinematic norm for over a century has been 24 fps. By all accounts the 120-fps "Billy Lynn," which debuted at the New York Film Festival in October, is so hyperreal it goes beyond realism and into the valley of the unearthly.
But you won't be able to see that version unless you go to New York or LA, which have the only theaters equipped to show it. Here in the hinterlands, we get the regular 24-fps cut — and yet. The edges of the actors' faces and the settings seem eerily well-delineated and Lee has tried to complement the technology with over-emphatic close-ups, the actors often delivering their lines straight to the camera.
The result is almost as thorough a misfire as what Peter Jackson did to Alice Sebold's novel "The Lovely Bones" in 2012 — a gifted director ruining a good book by literalizing what a writer made us visualize for ourselves. "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" might have worked better if Lee had reserved the 120-fps footage solely for the battle scenes — their agonizing super-pointillism might then have had a point. What he has made is a movie so uncertain about what reality looks like that it rarely feels real at all.
BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK
Directed by Ang Lee. Written by Jean-Christophe Castelli, based on the novel by Ben Fountain. Starring Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker, Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Makenzie Leigh. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 110 minutes. R (language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, brief drug use).