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‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ review: Ang Lee’s immersive drama

Joe Alwyn plays an Iraq veteran in Ang

Joe Alwyn plays an Iraq veteran in Ang Lee's new film "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." Video: Credit: Mary Cybulski / Sony-TriStar Pictures

PLOT A young soldier home from Iraq is celebrated as a hero at a Dallas football game.

CAST Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund

RATED R (language and violence)


BOTTOM LINE Ang Lee’s unprecedented use of digital technology makes for a hyperreal immersion into the mind of a traumatized soldier.

Sensory defensiveness is the clinical term for a disorder that plagues some traumatized war veterans. It’s the inability (or the refusal) of the brain to process stimuli. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” in which a young soldier returns home from Iraq to a country he no longer comprehends, doesn’t just capture this strange feeling. With its groundbreaking, hyperreal visuals, the movie almost induces it.

Shot in digital 3-D at an unprecedented 120 frames per second — almost five times the normal rate — Ang Lee’s movie looks like no other. From the moment its story begins, with Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and the other men of Bravo Company loitering outside a midmarket Dallas hotel, our brains struggle to process an onslaught of information. The images are crisp, vivid, painfully detailed: We can see creases in lips, moisture over eyeballs, threads in lapels. Everything is jarringly, aggressively close.

That’s exactly how these young men feel. A movie producer, Albert (Chris Tucker), hovers around hoping to monetize their heroic story — a bloody battle caught by a Fox News cameraman — while the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin), schmoozes them as his guests of honor. Meanwhile, Billy develops a fast-moving romance with a cheerleader, Faison (Makenzie Leigh), and ruminates over his sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), who begs him to claim PTSD and not return to Iraq.

As eye-popping as this movie’s new format is, there are trade-offs. Cross-fades look cheesy, interiors look like stage-sets and close-ups can be grotesque. Much of this may be intentional. Lee, whose credits range from the extravagant “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to the restrained “Brokeback Mountain,” never makes thoughtless choices. Certainly his climactic sequence — a halftime show in which the soldiers become props in a pop-patriotic blowout with Destiny’s Child — is a surreal masterpiece.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” isn’t as ruefully satirical as the 2012 novel by Ben Fountain. The enigmatic Sgt. David Dime (Garrett Hedlund) still serves as the voice of cynicism, while a soldier dubbed Shroom (Vin Diesel, not completely convincing) represents Zen wisdom. If seen in the traditional format — few U.S. theaters are equipped to show the high-rate version — Lee’s immersive, disorienting movie may reveal itself as a more familiar kind of drama.

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