‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’
Director: Ang Lee
Stars: Joe Alwynn, Vin Diesel
3 (out of 5) Globes
Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is one strange game-changer. Usually when we’re gifted with cutting-edge tech — the kind that may rejigger the very way we watch movies — it’s to present something big and flashy: alien worlds, crazy critters, big dudes with big guns. Audiences would likely have flocked to “Avatar” anyway, a spectacular that would have worked even without the big glasses that made its colorful planet impossibly immersive. With “Billy Lynn,” meanwhile, even a layman’s explanation of the tech can read like stereo instructions. And the film itself is so subtle in what it’s doing that a defense will likely come off like a grad school paper. Perhaps this isn’t a movie for the masses but for eggheady academics.
So here goes! For starters, “Billy Lynn” comes to us not just in 3-D, but in “high frame rate.” Maybe you’ve heard this term before. Peter Jackson’s played with it in the first “Hobbit,” to visually hideous ends. What it means is we’re literally seeing more images in the same amount of time. Films have traditionally, since the dawn of sound, been projected at 24 frames per second. “The Hobbit” beefed that up to 48. “Billy Lynn” goes all the way to 120. That sounds like a bunch of gobbledygook, but the difference is noticeable and, at least at first — and maybe forever — jarring. Any action, be it actors acting or things exploding, appear to move differently. But it only looks like they’re moving quicker, and only because we’ve become used, over the last century, to seeing a certain, heightened version of screen movement. In “Billy Lynn,” moreso than in “The Hobbit,” it almost looks like real life — as though we’re staring not just at a movie screen but at something happening before our very eyes.
If you’re still here, we can now try to explain what on earth “Billy Lynn” appears to be doing with this format. That’s tricky, too. Lee has said that the high-frame rate was intended to make it easier to access human emotions — to scan faces fraught with emotion, to feel a closer kinship with the people onscreen. In “Billy Lynn,” we go all the way into someone’s head. The eponymous character, played by Joe Alwynn, is a solder home from Iraq. He’s seen some stuff. He helped save his comrades during a grisly battle. Right now, though, he and his troops are being honored at a Dallas Cowboy’s game, where they’ll be paraded out during halftime and saluted for their valiant efforts. But Billy can’t stop flashing back: to the heat of battle, to the friend (Vin Diesel) he was unable to save, to his antiwar sister (Kristen Stewart) who’s against his potential redeployment.
Even moreso than “Avatar,” this might work just as fine as a “normal” movie. In fact, it’s not immediately clear what this new-fangled tech adds to the film. On one level, Lee was right: the bizarrely intimate cinematography trains us to scan the face of our emotionally remote hero, seeing how much pain and doubt he’s hiding. Other times we can simply get caught up in the moment. Half of “Billy Lynn” is flashbacks, while the other half is a comedy on the order of Michael Ritchie (“The Candidate,” “Bad News Bears”), where we watch as schemers fumble through the creation of a fraudulent pageant. There’s a lot of madcap insanity as the soldiers are jostled about by stressed handlers barking nonsensical orders, and preyed upon by glad-handers who want to exploit their heroism for personal gain. All the while, the troops try to keep their cool: they ball-bust each other, say things like “Seatbelts, ladies!” They talk strippers and mock the nonsense around them, all while trying to ignore that it’s all in honor of a battle where real people died, including a fellow soldier played by one of the cinema’s hulkiest he-men.
In this way, Ang Lee’s technical stunt is perfect: It’s a movie that looks hyper-real, about people trying to keep it real in the face of overwhelming BS. Actual movie stars (including Steve Martin, as the Cowboys’ scheming owner, and Chris Tucker, as a producer trying to score the troops a big war movie) look like they’re performing. (At one point, Martin is introduced with a drawn curtain, as though he was a circus act. In high frame rate, the entrance looks even more phony than usual.) We’re invited to notice that the women playing Destiny’s Child are definitely not Destiny’s Child. Even the bro-iness of the soldiers starts to look like an act, everyone falling back on macho archetypes to mask real pain. Everything is fake and real at once.
What “Billy Lynn” isn’t is terribly emotional, and — as you’ve probably by now gleaned — it’s definitely not a blockbuster. Even with the camera showing every detail on Billy’s face, he remains an enigma, unknowable. Perhaps that’s the point, and perhaps “Billy Lynn” is best read as a noble, bizarro experiment that, honestly, doesn’t entirely work. It shows the unusual strengths of the tech, especially when applied to a drama. But it also reveals its weaknesses. Any time Lee tries to treat his film like a regular film, it looks awkward; dissolves, montages, typical cuts — they all appear artificial and ugly. Still, any time Lee stays in the moment, the effect is fascinatingly disarming. The Iraq scenes are particularly effective, depicting the land as blindingly bright, where violence is an intrusion, not a constant state of being. Ironically for a movie boasting a brand new look, “Billy Lynn” is better to think about than to watch.