In director Ang Lee’s empathetic experimental war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a young soldier returns home a decorated hero but finds himself, his squad, and their sacrifices overshadowed by a much more marketable emblem of American excellence: Beyoncé. The point is a salient one, echoing the award-winning 2012 source novel by Ben Fountain—itself inspired by one of the most over the top real-life NFL halftime shows ever televised, in which pop spectacle, celebrity, and capitalism collided garishly with patriotism, or something like it.
We all know there’s inarguable magic in Bey’s every move (even if Lee goofily avoids showing the faces of any of his Destiny’s Child stand-ins). But as it unfolds over the course of a single day, Billy Lynn is about more than just a condemnation of how America celebrates its heroes. It’s a surprisingly effective internal coming-of-age story in which war is hell, but might still be more of a home than what’s waiting for its soldiers stateside. Unfortunately, the film is both muddied by and destined to be eclipsed by how three-time Oscar winner Lee presents it, shooting at unheard of high frame rates and with unprecedented visual detail so overwhelmingly alienating that our brains, perhaps, can’t yet keep up.
“What we’re seeing here is really the beginning of a new aesthetic… I think a lot of things should be in the process of changing,” Lee said rather optimistically Thursday night after screening Billy Lynn at 120 fps 3D at 2K resolution in Hollywood. Still, the film’s frosty New York Film Festival premiere has seemingly tempered his expectation of how warmly the groundbreaking technology will be received. “I think we have a long way to go.” The future may or may not be closer than that sounds.
The year is 2004: Specialist William Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and his teammates on the eight-man Bravo Squad have gone viral after surviving a brutal firefight in Iraq that was captured on film. An act of battlefield bravery has granted 19-year-old Lynn a Silver Star medal and the international fame has gifted the entire company a brief promotional visit home—minus their fallen sergeant, Shroom (a winningly zen Vin Diesel)—to smile and wave for the cameras, and put a heroic face on the war. But at the tail end of a two-week victory tour, Lynn finds himself overwhelmed and onstage at Dallas’s Texas Stadium, the world watching as his titular walk stretches into an agonizing eternity of soul-searching with a side of undiagnosed psychological trauma.
On the actual Thanksgiving Day 2004, you may remember, the bright spot in a famously terrible game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears arrived when R&B sensations Destiny’s Child stormed the field to headline a pyro-happy halftime show spectacular. Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle, all bare midriffs and big hair, stomped their way around in heels, flanked by uniformed members of the armed forces and a robust college marching band. They crooned “Lose My Breath” and “Soldier” as a drill team in dress blues twirled their rifles on the 50-yard line. George W. Bush had just squeaked by John Kerry to keep the White House. Author Fountain was moved and revolted by the display of performative American patriotism he saw that day, writing a fictional war hero into the pomp and chaos.
In Billy Lynn, Lee brings that halftime show to life as a PTSD nightmare, turning a celebratory day for real American heroes into a miserable one filled with palpable anxiety.
The film, adapted from the novel by Jean-Christophe Castelli, whittles the book down to its basics. Dallas Cowboys team owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) schmoozes the members of Bravo Squad, who are set to redeploy—and have linked up with a fast-talking manager (Chris Tucker) to make a lucrative deal for their life rights and turn Bravo Company’s story into just the kind of stirring patriotic biopic that a demoralized nation needs. The thread leads to Brit actor Alwyn’s strongest onscreen moment—one which also allows Lee to posture earnestly, if awkwardly, about the film industry.
At home, Billy’s older sister Kathryn, played warmly by Kristen Stewart in a deeply felt turn, urges him to take measures that could keep him from being shipped off again. It’s tempting, but something keeps him connected to the squad of brothers he’s bonded with, now led by Sgt. Dime (Garrett Hedlund). Even the whirlwind romance Billy finds in the arms of his dream girl at a press conference (Makenzie Leigh)—a Cowboys cheerleader with a heart of gold, enamored of his war hero status—is a wry comment on the fragile charade of mutual fantasy.
The film keeps flashing back in time as Lee toys with perspective and perception, tweaking the cinematic texture of each scene. We see and hear the story through Lynn’s POV and remember crucial moments through his memories. When he arrives back on the doorstep of his Texas home, the picture’s resolution verges on Hallmark Channel territory—like watching an HD broadcast with motion blur on, or catching a BBC broadcast of a filmed stage production. More downside: At 120 frames per second, giant makeup-free faces peering directly into the camera, stilted dialogue comes off even more glaringly clunky, and all the terrible performances by extras in the background become too distracting to ignore.
But leaping ahead of what Peter Jackson attempted (and failed) to translate with his 48 fps Hobbit experiment, Lee gives us a glimpse of how filmmakers might one day execute a more palatable potential use for high frame rate cinema. Jackson’s folly was thinking that higher resolution and more information crammed into every frame would make the fantastical realm of Middle-earth seem more real. Instead, using 48 fps on his Lord of the Rings universe betrayed the sets, the heavy makeup, and the stagey performances by amplifying the artifice, drawing the viewer’s attention to all the wrong details.
Billy Lynn is a much better thematic match than The Hobbit for the future-gen technology that will, nevertheless, likely prove too big an experiential change from 24 fps for the majority of the current movie-going public. At least, for now: Lee seems well aware that what he’s attempted here, at great cost and effort, is one small step for critical acclaim and one giant leap for the future of movies. What Lee’s subtle distancing effect does achieve, for the viewers who can be receptive to it, is creating an immersive living unreality seen from Billy’s POV that never quite feels right to the viewer. The scenes that feel most true to life are the ones set in Iraq, where a brutal firefight plays out in vivid detail and Diesel and Alwyn share a lovely scene under one particularly glorious-in-high-resolution tree.
This is the new language of cinema that Lee and Jackson are trying to foster, and Billy Lynn is the closest we’ve seen yet to understanding, at least, why these filmmakers keep trying to pioneer a cinema technology that audiences don’t seem to want. To feel a visceral sense of alienation in our own minds as we observe Lynn wander about a familiar world—a world that should be home to a returning soldier, but which suddenly feels irreversibly alien—imparts the sense that something is just barely and imperceptibly off. High frame rate or no, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk carries an admirable message about how civilians deal with soldiers who return home from war changed. Thrust into the spotlight, Billy is bewildered as complete strangers line up to offer platitudes to him for his service. Time and again, powerful men who’ve never come close to the front lines betray their inner bloodlust, begging the soldiers to tell them what it feels like to shoot and kill an enemy. Billy Lynn is, fiercely, an anomaly: It’s an anti-war film that loves soldiers. And it has more to say about how America treats, commodifies, and discards the members of our armed forces than it does about the wars we send them away to fight and die in.