In the news for its 120 fps hyper-HD format, Ang Lee’s tale of a 19-year-old soldier suffering from PTSD looks far from gimmicky.
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Garett Hedlund, Steve Martin, Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker
Rating: 3.5 stars
Over the last decade, American cinema has increasingly entrenched itself deep within the paradoxical bunkers of modern war. Filmmakers have woken up to the frailties of the human mind in battle, and more importantly, after battle. Most of these films are designed to make the viewer wonder why instead of why not, often intentionally underlining the futility and ironies of military service.
The protagonists – either based on true events (Lone Survivor, American Sniper, Saving Private Ryan, Zero Dark Thirty) or otherwise (The Hurt Locker) – are built up more as deeply damaged and self-loathing victims than proud products of a conflicted culture. One can imagine each of them enlisting after being spurred on by the pointed finger of the devious-looking hatted figure in “Uncle Sam Wants You” army posters, looking to escape the conservative rows of suburban house porches adorned with giant Stars-and-Stripes flags.
Torn between the traumas of two equally violent worlds, between the pathos of battlefield drama and the ethos of real-life hypocrisy, these character portraits posture themselves as more than just cinematic works and political statements. The process of translating this onto screen, though, is a dehumanizing studio business like any other – which has long been ‘humanity/social message’ movies’ most self-defeating sardonicism. The world deserves to be inspired by your story, they declare, like cartoon caricatures with dollars flashing in their eyes.
“But this story doesn’t belong to America. It’s our life you’re buying!” thunders Sgt. Dime (Garrett Hedlund) to a potential film financier (Steve Martin; invoking his cunning Kevin Spacey-ish Texan drawl), in an emotionally charged scene from Ang Lee’s new film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. A film, for once, partly addressing in all seriousness how these famous films are erected: the quick-fire Chris Tucker, who plays a hotshot producer, embodies the opportunistic Hollywood dash to monetize – and miss the entire point of – every drop of real-life testosterone-fueled savagery.
It’s easy to feel assaulted by every single tear and dust flake in the background, but I suspect the cumulative strainer-effect is an essential part of the viewing experience.
Dime, the older leader of the Bravos, a unit that has become overnight sensations owing to 19-year-old soldier Lynn’s (Joe Alwyn) Iraq heroics captured on camera, is sick of the “show” by now. He is sick of greasing patriotism’s shiny conveyer belt of toy-figure merchandise. He is sick of being celebrated, here on the last leg of their highly publicized nation-wide tour culminating in the half-time show of a Thanksgiving football game. They’re being paraded around like brave animals, treated as timely allegories instead of cautionary tales. By now – and we echo his sentiments – deployment in a war whose agenda he isn’t even sure of (oil or Saddam?) seems far safer than these greedy backstage contrivances of civilization.
In this one moment, young Lynn’s rousing face tells you the story of a mind well on its way to cinema’s favourite pet condition, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. If not for that fateful day, which we see in progressive flashbacks throughout the film, Lynn would have been just another faceless drone following orders. Should he not be celebrated simply for choosing to be loyal to his nation’s heinous war narrative? He is struggling to fathom the kind of freedom and bigotry he kills strangers in hot fields for. This is not the kind of country he wants to die for. Yet, there’s nothing else he has an aptitude for.
There’s nothing else he can live for. Except for maybe this cute wide-eyed cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) eyeing him, who sounds exceptionally turned on by his crippling mental wounds. Perhaps she is his biggest shot at normalcy, a signal to obey his worried sister (Kristen Stewart) and abandon his battalion mid-tour. He suspects though, but doesn’t want to believe, that this dreamy new girl would leave him the moment he drops his uniform. In a way, he is her story now, a symbol, a beacon of hope, an intangible idea, a bronze bust of personification – everything but a human anymore. On one side, there’s Sgt. Dime, his group of ragtag mates and their bravado boys-don’t-cry (replete with Hillary Swank references) camaraderie, and then there’s the feel-good America’s-sweethearts package on the other.
Its 120 fps hyper-HD format has long been publicized far more than its actual content. Far from the regular war template of shaky cameras and furious cutting, this film is deliberately overwhelming with its lens.
The reason I’m reading so much into Lynn and his feelings is down to Ang Lee’s language for his film. First, there’s the narrative language: much of it occurs in real time in and around the stadium, peppered with smart transitions and distinctive timelines of Iraq and his return back home. Lee doesn’t hold back with his material’s self-awareness; Billy’s family is made up of greyish folks who, one imagines, have embraced his aura soon after turning their backs on him.
Most importantly, there’s the technical language: its 120 fps hyper-HD format has long been publicized far more than its actual content. Far from the regular war template of shaky cameras and furious cutting, this film is deliberately overwhelming with its lens. But it’s the all-consuming context behind this technique that seems to have rankled moviegoers. War isn’t supposed to make you feel comfortable in the throes of escapism. It is real and distortive, its details are everywhere, and its aftermath is an internal hemorrhage of unpleasant memories.
Lee wants us to feel this affected mindscape of a boy detecting too much information for his age. This is, on its own, a part of the story that can’t be shown as much as conjured – like an invisible smoke machine decorating the atmosphere, without actually physically doing it.
Far from gimmicky, this look is very much part of the storytelling. Perhaps he should have ping-ponged between formats and gone easy on the POV perspectives; it gets a bit unnerving to see tight close-ups of faces directly addressing us – we feel controlled here instead of consumed. It’s easy to feel assaulted by every single tear and dust flake in the background, but I suspect the cumulative strainer-effect is an essential part of the viewing experience.
I left the hall understanding a little more about what drives the abusive relationship between human nature and its most unnatural activity. America is known for its propensity to stage an entertaining spectacle, but Lee gives us an inclusive peak into the banality behind all the beauty, the banter between the applause.
The change they seek is unquantifiable and reactionary, behaviorally encapsulated by Ang Lee’s most topical and “lifelike” film yet.
More notably, Billy Lynn, as well as his racially diverse colleagues, eventually comes across as a crucial cross-section of the young-white demographic to have voted for Donald Trump. And nobody can begrudge them that, or for hiding from ordinary life in army camouflages and viral videos. The war is their cinematic 24 fps movie; everything else is too real, too divisive. The change they seek is unquantifiable and reactionary, behaviorally encapsulated by Ang Lee’s most topical and “lifelike” film yet.