Although we have grown accustomed to it, the standard film-format comes packaged with a boatload of optical flaws and illusions. There is pronounced motion blur, especially visible when the camera moves fast enough to reveal the fallibility of conventional frame-rates and shutter-speeds. There is rolling shutter, a particularly problematic effect for digital filmmakers. The list goes on and on, but we as moviegoers have unconsciously trained our eyes to the fundamentally unreal qualities of a moving image. Film no longer astonishes us by appearing “real,” as it was able to do more than a century ago. And so when great innovations in filmmaking come along, ones that make the false image more familiar – like the advent of sound or the development of color – audiences have a tendency to regard these films as “revelatory.” We haven’t had one of these “revelatory” movies in awhile. Perhaps 3D represented a mini-watershed moment in film’s evolution, but ever since James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), we’ve come to dismiss this phenomenon as supplementary at best and gimmicky at worst.
In other words…it’s been a long time since we, as a collective audience, were asked to reconsider the potential of the film medium.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the 13th feature by director Ang Lee, coming on the heels of his Oscar-winning Life Of Pi (2012). It was shot in 4K HD resolution, in stereoscopic 3D (two cameras, one for each eye, rolling simultaneously), with a 360° shutter-angle at 120 frames-per-second – the first film ever to be shot with this high of a frame-rate. Without going into too much detail, this essentially means that there are roughly four times as many pixels packed onto the screen as there are in regular HD, and that the speed of the image is five times greater than the format standard, 24 frames-per-second.
Here’s the rub: Billy Lynn kicked my ass. Go see this movie. I was fortunate enough to attend a screening with a projector advanced enough to show the film in stereoscopic 3D, in 4K HD, at the native 120fps. As of now, only two theaters in the country can project the film in its ‘native’ format. Billy Lynn had to go through the arduous process of being converted down to 2K, 60fps formats, so it could actually be shown in most cinemas. For context, Peter Jackson’s controversial The Hobbit Trilogy (2012-2014) was shot in 48fps, and got a lot of flak for looking “choppy,” a real issue when upping frame-speeds. I don’t know how Billy Lynn will look at 60fps, so it’s very possible the effect of this movie will be lost at downgraded frame-speeds and quality. But I can attest to the power of the film in its intended format. Gone is the glabrous, telenovela-esque unreality that high frame-rates usually call to mind. By upping the framerate to such a ridiculous level, Ang Lee sidesteps this over-smoothing effect. The image is crisp, fluid, and almost ethereal. It brings to mind the hyper-presence of Ultra HD sports broadcasts on 4K TV’s, or the BBC’s Planet Earth II (2016).
The opening shot of Billy Lynn is a scan-lined snippet of camcorder video, explained via newscaster narration to have been recorded by the abandoned camera of an embedded reporter during a small skirmish in an Iraqi village. The footage was taken in 2004, during the height of the U.S. invasion, and shows two insurgents dragging wounded American Staff Sergeant “Shroom” Breen (Vin Diesel) out from behind cover. They are quickly sent scurrying by bullets from off-screen, and up runs young Specialist William Lynn (Joe Alwyn), who kneels next to his commanding officer, shouts “You’re going to be okay, Sarge!” and proceeds to draw his sidearm, firing heroically off-screen at some invisible enemy. It’s a flag-at-Iwo Jima moment, and the newscaster explains that young William Lynn and all of “Bravo Squad” have become the new face of the Iraq War. The film then cuts to Lynn waking up in his hotel room after a night of partying, on the day “Bravo” is scheduled to appear during the halftime performance of the Dallas Cowboys season-opener.
The moment I saw Lynn on screen, my jaw dropped.
There is no way to describe the sense of presence offered by this film. There is a sense of hyperreality to Billy Lynn that requires an adjustment period. The movie starts slow, ramping up into a more energetic and stylistically dynamic second act. This was a gracious choice, as the opening hour of Billy Lynn needs a pair of training wheels. The new format requires some getting used to; the actors’ faces glow with more nuance and expression than anything I’ve seen in IMAX theaters, and the blocking in three dimensions lends a tangible feeling of depth to every image. Adapting to this level of immersion will take several minutes, at least. You literally have never seen anything like this in the cinema.
Billy Lynn was shot by first-time Ang Lee collaborator John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Vanilla Sky, and Breaking Bad’s Pilot Episode). Toll and Lee break almost every rule in the cinematographer’s playbook. They do so not with confidence, but with an emboldened sense of experimentation. This format, the format they created, is entirely uncharted. There are no rules in this realm of filmmaking. You like the 180° rule? Too bad, it’s gone. Think POV shots are stupid? Tough, half the dialogue scenes are shot from a character’s POV. Like some slow-motion in your war movies? You’re not getting any; every minute of Billy Lynn unfolds in real-time, including all of the PTSD-driven flashbacks and harried dream sequences. Want some order and structure in your editing? You’re not getting any of that; Billy Lynn jumps from minute-long reaction shots to half-second flashbacks, and uses dynamic transitions, rather than easily-identifiable fades and markers, to separate out its flashback scenes. If you want a good example of the type of filmmaking I’m talking about, imagine this scene from Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004), except duplicated a dozen times over:
The cast is odd, but they work – both Steve Martin and Chris Tucker are here, visibly struggling to act less than they normally do, in order to compensate for the unprecedented level of detail visible on their faces. Newcomer Joe Alwyn is a revelation as Billy, bringing all sorts of homespun Texas charm to his calm facade in the wake of trauma. Although most of Bravo Squad is given little individual screen-time, the supporting cast is solid and believable, comprising an ethnically diverse sampling of America’s youth sent to die for “an unjust war.” Kristen Stewart is here as Billy’s anti-war sister, who drives the A-Plot along by trying to convince Billy to meet with a psychiatrist to receive a PTSD diagnosis rather than return to Iraq with his unit. Vin Diesel is given some angelic star-treatment as Bravo’s spiritual CO, spouting Hindu wisdom and deterministic jargon at Billy and the boys. And Garrett Hedlund is the unmistakable workhorse of this film – objecting to every condescending critique of him as a “discount Ryan Gosling” and delivering an unrecognizable performance as Bravo’s clipped and square-jawed Staff Sergeant Dime. Hedlund has the most lines in the film, and delivers them with a Kubrickian, sardonic lilt – seemingly poking fun at his own caricature while also embracing it. There’s a particularly memorable moment between him and Diesel: right before Bravo enters the skirmish in the Iraqi village, Sergeant Breen (Diesel) turns to each member of the squad and tells them, “I love you.” When he reaches the end of the line, Dime responds with, “Yeah, yeah, let’s go get a middle school named after us.”
Billy Lynn is not a war film. The one combat sequence is barely ten minutes long, takes place two-thirds of the way through, and is partially truncated by cuts back to the halftime show. This film is a comedy; a war-time comedy, to be sure, full of black humor and satire, but still a comedy. It’s a masterful work by a foreign filmmaker who gained enough objective insight of the shell-shocked American climate post-Iraq War to offer up a refreshing take on how we deal with the modern pageantry of battle. It’s easy to compare Billy Lynn to Clint Eastwood’s Flags Of Our Fathers (2006), about the squad who hoisted the flag at Iwo Jima and their subsequent press tour through wartime America. But unlike the often melodramatic and ur-patriotic Flags, Billy Lynn does little to mitigate the absurdity of such a concept. It embraces the ridiculousness of the scenario: A group of soldiers, having performed an act of valor under extreme duress, get carted back to the States for two weeks to shake hands, answer ignorant questions, parlay with oil magnates and stadium-owners, record greetings at football games, get Over-The-Pants-Handjobs from Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders (kudos, Billy), and ultimately just ship back off, after doing their “duty to American heroism”… it’s all spectacle, all glitz, all insubstantial. The movie buries us in sensory overstimulation to compound this effect – to immerse us in the conflicting emotions of these characters as they push aside all the existential questions they must be having about God and Country, but are too scared, too jaded, or too apathetic to answer.
The original novel by Ben Fountain is considered a “satire,” and Lee stays true to the style. The dialogue is so matter-of-fact, even goofy at times, that one can’t help but laugh. The events on screen play out without the faintest hint of drama, and much like Diesel’s line about “the bullet that kills you, it’s already been fired,” the film offers no excuse, no raison d’etre, for any of it. It’s about the spectacle of war, how we both accept and deny its reality, all while counting on its “heroes” to buoy us in the face of its ineffability. All done in remarkably tongue-in-cheek fashion.
The battle sequence in Billy Lynn is the most compelling wartime violence I’ve ever seen. This is not hyperbole. The nature of this new film-format immerses the viewer so completely in the experience of being under fire, and of returning fire, that it feels almost too realistic. The moment in which an insurgent is blown apart into “pink mist” by a .50 caliber machine gun is beyond horrific: it’s real. During this ten minute sequence, Billy Lynn never once feels like a movie. It feels like combat.
Just as remarkable is the actual halftime walk. It’s a thrilling yet strangely hysterical scene, in which Bravo faces their toughest mission: successfully navigate a football halftime performance with Destiny’s Child. They’re yelled at, berated, assaulted, and demeaned as faceless showrunners and production coordinators tell them where to stand and what to do in the face of fireworks, thundering bass drums, and fake militaristic explosions, all triggering fits of violence, nausea and panic in several of the squad-members. The sequence is intercut with Billy’s flashbacks to the village skirmish, and at the climax of this scene we see what happens after the camcorder footage cuts out; a revelation the film has been building toward for an hour and a half. This scene is perhaps the most unique and visceral take on PTSD I’ve seen since Jacob’s Ladder (1990).
There’s more I can say about Billy Lynn – how metacinematic the plot becomes, how many times the frame-tale structure folds back in on itself, creating flashbacks within dreams within fantasies. Perhaps, if it was shot in a traditional format, Billy Lynn would be a mere “average” wartime satire – more comparable to Jarhead (2005) than to Dr. Strangelove (1964). But as it stands, the film might be mentioned in the same breath as Full Metal Jacket (1987). Released with ten years hindsight on the Iraq War, and avant garde technology to propel its ascent, Billy Lynn is destined for chapters in future film history textbooks. Record this as the moment the medium was pushed even further toward true simulacrum. If film is to be our zeitgeist, the American zeitgeist, the irony seems only fitting that a Chinese director would catalyze the next evolutionary leap forward. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an unequivocal masterpiece by a master director. It has perhaps only one damnable flaw: it will spoil “normal” movies for a long, long time.