Ang Lee takes a bold technological leap to rediscover the reality of movies, bringing us perilously close to an Iraq War platoon.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” has the potential to be a revolutionary film. It opens the door to a new way for movies to be shot, a new way for them to look and feel, a new way for them to be experienced. (This may not happen — in fact, it surely won’t — for a while, but record this moment: It all started here.) The movie, directed by Ang Lee, is adapted from a 2012 novel by Ben Fountain that’s set on a single day in 2004, when a platoon of Iraq War veterans, who’ve been flown back to the U.S., are engaged in a military PR gambit to participate in the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving halftime show. “Billy Lynn” isn’t a special-effects film. It is, for lack of a better word, a realistic movie: real actors and dialogue and drama, a glitzy football game, flashbacks to a cataclysmic Iraq War firefight, a torn and conflicted hero, a love story. So how could it be revolutionary?
Here’s how. Lee, working with the cinematographer John Toll, shot the film in 3D at a speed of 120 frames per second — five times that of an ordinary movie. He also shot it with a 4K resolution. The result of these combined radical departures from conventional filmmaking technology is that there’s a much higher and more granular level of visual data packed into each and every frame. What this means for the audience — or, at least, for the audience that can see the film in this format, since in most parts of the country it won’t be fully projected that way — is that the images in “Billy Lynn” have an astonishing clarity and physical presence. The first image we see is that of Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a boyish media hero of the war, still in bed, waking up to answer his cellphone, and it’s startling to behold, because you feel, at that moment, like you could almost reach into the screen and touch the person there. I have no doubt that’s how people felt about movies a hundred years ago, when they first saw them, but our eyes (to put it mildly) have adjusted to the facsimile of reality that movies create, and “Billy Lynn,” kicking the facsimile up three notches, springs that primal magic trick all over again.
In this case, the sensation isn’t totally unfamiliar, since the images have some of the eerie present-tense effect of videotape, though with a you-are-there clarity that’s unprecedented. Maybe it’s no surprise that the film also feels a little stark in its 20-20 objectivity, stripped and cleansed of the usual subtleties of atmosphere. “Billy Lynn” isn’t a warm-looking movie. Yet that hardly matters when you’re watching it, because the experience is so sharp-edged and tactile that the presence of the actors in front of you feels physically immersive.
There’s a grand paradox at work in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” The film isn’t simply a technological experiment; it’s also a highly original, heartfelt, and engrossing story. And part of the power of it lies in the way that those two things are connected. A dizzying clarity of image, after all, is not required for an audience to experience gripping drama or potent emotion. Yet in “Billy Lynn,” the way that everything we see is so alive, so there, seems to have given Lee and his screenwriter, Jean-Christophe Castelli, the freedom to create a movie of unusual, glancing intimacy and formal fluidity, one that’s willing — far more than most movies — to live in the moment, and to lure the audience inside that moment. In “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” reality truly is the ultimate special effect. Lee takes an evolutionary leap in technology, but he does it only to lead us back to what movies used to be.
The script has some salty dialogue that’s also punchy and heady and percussive, in the mode of a well-made play. Yet that works for it too: The intense presence of the actors creates that feeling you have in the theater — that they’re right there — and so a bit of theatrical dialogue isn’t a drawback. Besides, this is no overly spelled-out message movie. It’s a full-bodied peek at the trauma of what our soldiers are actually going through, and at how the disconnection we have from them is reinforced by all the false ways that they’ve been portrayed and celebrated.
Billy Lynn is a hero because, in the midst of battle, he was caught on a cellphone video coming to the aid of his wounded sergeant, Shroom (Vin Diesel), and firing back at the enemy. That image became a scannable meme of heroism, and a highly marketable moment. That’s why his platoon, the Bravo Squad, has been brought on a two-week “victory tour,” culminating in their halftime appearance in the rare-meat heart of red-state country. As they ride in a long black Hummer limousine (a slightly distasteful echo of their armored war vehicles), their manager, Albert (Chris Tucker), jabbers on the phone trying to get them a movie deal. They’re supposed to be enjoying their 15 minutes of celebrity, but they don’t trust any of it, and rightly so. The words pass between them with that private s—kicking macho code shared by soldiers who’ve been baptized in war together.
Billy is one of the boys — in fact, he’s their star — but he can’t focus. A small-town Texas kid pummeled and traumatized by war, he’s got a head that’s everywhere at once, and that’s where the movie follows him: to scenes with his sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), an anti-war liberal — which makes her odd woman out in her family — who’s desperate for Billy not to redeploy. Or to scenes in Iraq, where the video of Billy’s heroism that everyone saw was just the tip of the bloody iceberg. In the big battle sequence, when the soldiers are lined up behind a wall, firing away as bullets come ripping back at them, the immediacy of the technology creates a sensation reminiscent of the great sniper sequence in “Full Metal Jacket” — a sense that no “cause” could survive the insanity of this mayhem. The reality of war is fear, survival, tearing flesh, and — finally — the revelation of the enemy as a real live human being who you must decide to murder before he murders you.
All of this haunts Billy, in his semi-suppressed PTSD haze, yet he is also alive to the sights and sounds around him: the camaraderie of his buddies, the explosive surrealism of the football hoopla. At a press conference, we see just how detached these boys are from the good-soldier roles they’re playing, and when Billy catches the eye of a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, we know that he’s the rock star and she’s the officially sanctioned groupie. Yet their connection is true. Makenzie Leigh, as the pom-pop Christian whose job is to be a red-and-white-and-blue erotic figment, has a star-making overbite combined with an indelible soulfulness. We’re led to think: She’s worth leaving the war for.
The extraordinary technology of “Billy Lynn,” along with a fine script and inspired acting, allows Ang Lee to conceive a movie that’s built, almost like a thriller, around Billy’s experience of a single day. It’s a sly joke (and also a bit of a nightmare) that the halftime show comes close to being more disorienting to the Bravo Squad than the war itself. They’re hustled around like cattle, and they turn out to be the backup attraction to Destiny’s Child (another sly joke: Beyoncé is a major presence in this movie, yet we see only her from-the-back gyrations and honey-blonde hair).
Yet “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” isn’t just about the rote insensitivity of the media age. It’s a piercing satire of an America in which even those who are against the war say they “support the troops,” but even those for the war don’t really support the troops. They support the official advertisement for the troops. The actual troops they don’t give much of a damn about, and Lee’s tragicomic portrayal of the disconnect between the soldiers and the people dramatizes something that no previous Iraq War film has gotten close to. The stadium techies who try to pick a fight with Bravo Squad look like outliers, but really, they’re expressing the contempt that underlies the celebration. Even the football game itself, with its paramilitary marching band, is a fake war. It’s “combat” for Americans who prefer virtual reality.
Will “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” connect with audiences? Probably to the degree that other Iraq War films have — which is to say, not very much. Yet it’s a new technical paradigm that’s also a deftly acted conventional movie, and the art of it is in the way that those two things go together. The film may wind up freaking out a lot of actors, in the way that the conversion of television to HD did; they may think their skin is now going to be observed on movie screens as if through binoculars. But “Billy Lynn” is full of inspired performances that are inseparable from how close (in every way) we get to the people who are giving them. I can’t remember the last time Steve Martin was this good in a movie: He plays the owner of the Cowboys, who wants to back a Bravo Squad movie deal (though without paying them more than peanuts), and the weaselly greed is etched all over his face. As Sgt. Dime, the commander of the unit, Garrett Hedlund gives a brilliant performance — he’s a man who takes military sadism to new levels of playful cunning, and Hedlund portrays him like the son of Peter Weller and Dorothy Parker. And Joe Alwyn, as Billy, gives you the feeling you had when you first saw the young Leonardo DiCaprio: so much openness, so much cagey and responsive empathy, so much going on in that face. Or can part of his performance be chalked up to the technology? I’m tempted to answer that by leaning in Alwyn’s favor. But the real answer is: Stay tuned.
This article originally appeared in Variety.