I went into last night’s 6 pm screening of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk with high expectations for the 120 frames-per-second, 4K 3D photography (I’ve been a general fan of HFR for decades) and a slight sense of caution and uncertainty about the basic bones of the thing, which all along had sounded to me like an Iraq War rehash of Clint Eastwood‘s Flags Of Our Fathers (the gap between hollow patriotic pageantry and the harsh realities of war) and therefore nothing new.
And then I saw it and the cards got all shuffled around. The tech aspect impressed but also underwhelmed in certain ways. My eyes became used to the hyper-clarity after a while, and as the acclimation took hold I began to search for the usual nutritional stuff, and to my surprise Billy Lynn gradually sank in and delivered — not in a rock-your-world sense but in quiet, unforced terms. The story, acting and plain-dealing emotion bring things to a mid-level boil.
It finally hits home, I’m saying. Not so much from the easy-lay observations about hollow patriotism and pageantry and the atmosphere of official delusion but from the general feeling of bonding and, yes, fraternal love between combatants. The transitions between American celebration and Iraqi desperation grow in intensity, and the peripherals recede as the fundamentals apply. Your brothers in arms are all you can count on. I’ve felt this current in dozens of war films before, but it got me again.
So as I walked through Times Square station on my way to the Brooklyn-bound R train, I told a colleague in Los Angeles that “it’s a good film…not an audaciously original, blow-your-socks-off type of thing but a modestly good film…the material is the material (i.e., Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel), and the delivery is understated and effective.
“Is it a blindingly brilliant thing?,” I said. “No, but it’s not a wipe-out or a burn, and anyone calling Billy Lynn that” — my friend had been passing along some snarly-sounding Twitter reactions — “just isn’t paying sufficient attention…they aren’t letting it in.”
But first the tech stuff. Honestly? I felt crestfallen when I walked into the almost shoebox-sized AMC Lincoln Square theatre that Billy Lynn was projected in. This plus a not-yet-selected Los Angeles venue will allegedly be the only two that will screen the film in what director Ang Lee has called “the whole shebang” process of 120 fps 4K 3D. (Most viewers will see it in 60 or 48 frames per second, and in some instances only via 24 fps and 2D.)
“This?” I said to myself as I walked into this smallish, stuffy house. I felt as if I was sitting in some nondescript megaplex in Tampa or Baton Rouge. It was explained that the producers needed a situation close to Lincoln Center that had a short “throw” (i.e., distance from projector to screen), and this crummy little theatre, located in the far rear of the Lincoln Square plex, fit the bill. Okay, fine…let’s watch this sucker.
The high-def, super-crisp visuals impressed during the celebrative halftime sequence (bright lights, cheering, explosions, bikini-bod cheerleaders) and especially during a single Iraq battle scene that lasts maybe eight or ten minutes, if that. But the visuals also underwhelmed to some extent because of what struck me as a subdued and unattractive palette with various shades of green and gray.
Most of Billy Lynn was shot inside an Atlanta football stadium (pretending to be the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T stadium), and what this gives you is (a) interiors with flat overhead lighting, (b) a few shots with a slightly murky, under-lighted feeling, (c) those Army dress-green uniforms (no pizazz) plus (d) occasional shadowy shots that don’t deliver all that much in the way of visual accent or intrigue.
120 fps photography means no lighting, no makeup, no artifice — you have to shoot raw.
Again, the most exciting and satisfying display of the “whole shebang” comes with the Iraq shoot-out sequence, but it doesn’t last that long. Mostly Billy Lynn strands you in that fucking football stadium, and after a while I was muttering to myself “can we please get back to those bright, sandy-colored Iraq visuals and the action stuff?…those eight to ten minutes are really the shit.”
When I crashed last night at 11:30 pm the reactions to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk were running between negative to mixed-positive. I started to file but I’d been up and hitting it for 16 hours and I just felt too whipped to keep going. So I crashed and awoke at 6:30 am, and by that time the word on Billy Lynn was worse. It felt like a pile-on, and really quite unfair.
Billy Lynn deserves to be respected and saluted for its technical ambition and its humanity. It’s a medium-level piece with good internals (Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn has called it a ’50s-style, live-TV Playhouse 90-type drama, which is exactly what I was thinking as I watched it), and shouldn’t be dumped on. I intend to see it again in Los Angeles on 10.18, and we’ll see how that goes now that I’m through the first pass.
The main complaint seems to be that Billy Lynn‘s modesty and familiarity — the standard us-vs.-them soldier attitude, the glitzy football-stadium setting, the Iraq War backdrop — doesn’t mesh with the intensity of the imagery. You’re asking yourself “why exactly was the 120 fps experience deemed necessary to make this modest little piece come alive?”
The answer is that while 120 fps 4K 3D might not be a vital ingredient, it sure as shit enhances and intensifies. Yes, you become accustomed to it, and yes, it becomes something you start to push past or not care as much about starting around…oh, the 45-minute mark (except, that is, for the Iraq battle footage, which is really and truly worth the price in itself) but I was fully taken with what I was seeing and feeling. It was different, extra-level.
Bottom line: If it hadn’t been shot in this process, Billy Lynn might not have gotten the New York Film Festival berth or for that matter much in the way of cranked-up attention from the media and the Oscar blogaroonies.
I wrote a few weeks ago that I didn’t like the look of the British-born Joe Alwyn, who plays Billy Lynn. I didn’t like his puffy, watery eyes and that relentless expression he has in the trailers and on the poster of “oooh, this feels fake to me…I have a sensitive inner side that’s not meshing with all of this flashy bullshit patriotic pageantry.” But he grew on me, and by the end I’d decided that Alwyn is cool. He’s a skilled actor who knows from subtlety and finesse. Plus his blonde hair has all grown out into a thick mane, and he was wearing a totally killer maroon suit at the premiere.
Steve Martin plays the bad guy — a fictional owner of the Dallas Cowboys named Norm Oglesby who pretends to be a rapt admirer of the Bravo boys but is basically just another prick capitalist manipulator.
Garrett Hedlund delivers the strongest performance after Alwyn’s, a blustery, tough-talking sergeant who’s part of the Bravo Company squad being honored.
Vin Diesel is also moderately effective as Shroom, a combatant who falls under harm’s way in Iraq. Diesel delivers a commendable performance in a good movie every ten years or thereabouts. Private Adrian Caparzo in Steven Spielberg‘s Saving Private Ryan (’98), Jack DiNorscio in Sidney Lumet‘s Find Me Guilty (’06) and now this.
Kristen Stewart plays Kathryn Lynn, Billy’s antiwar sister who wants him to duck out on further duty — a good if unexceptional performance.
Makenzie Leigh plays a beautiful Christian hot-bod cheerleader whom Billy falls for during the festivities — no one’s idea of a brilliant, well-educated or ultra-sensitive character but the LexG crowd…enough said.
Another standout performance is given by Tim Blake Nelson, a Texas businessman (I think I heard something about fracking) who cozies up to the soldiers for reasons he comes to regret.
Chris Tucker is spirited and sincere in a so-so role as Martin’s fast-talking flunky.