Here is the environment the day of my Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk screening: a too-warm late-afternoon in October on the eve of a presidential election that has stirred up anger, uncertainty and anxiety for many. Earlier, I had passed by someone in Best Buy trying out the Oculus. He looked silly and also slightly creepy as he swiveled and flailed his arms.
With the use of 3D and a 120 frame rate (the first to be shot in its entirety this way), there has been a lot of blah blah about Ang Lee advancing "the form" but the joke may be on us. Whereas traditional film-making has long offered a sense of visual distance, the bright, polished look of this film gives it a hyper-realism that shows freckles, warts and all, including extras overacting. Throughout, like the appearance of the Oculus man, I felt silly in my 3D glasses with an audience of 3Ders, watching a movie that didn't feel like it needed to be in 3D. The technology is the most obvious aspect and also one of the least important. It can read tacky--like wearing an outfit with labels and price tags still on. But the slickness of its look also ends up parodying what a mainstream movie-going audience pines for--to be transported, dazzled and excited. But are war pictures supposed to be dazzling and exciting? Am I supposed to be entertained by 3D bullets and carnage, especially in a depiction of the war in Iraq? To its credit, in the film's use of the frame rate and its feverish, sometimes severe direct-to-camera closeups, there is something aptly unnerving in the sleek visuals as we experience the heightened senses and emotions of a traumatized soldier Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) at a football game.
After surviving a harrowing battle, Lynn's squad is invited as special guests to the Texas game by an oligarch with the last name Oglesby (Steve Martin) interested in making a movie deal about the troop's story at the denouncement of a celebratory "victory tour." The squad is ragtag and young, simultaneously childish and immature and yet wise-beyond-years, led by the stern and sarcastic Sgt. Dime (Garrett Hedlund). Lynn is unsettled by the recent death of his comrade (Vin Diesel) and the disconcerting contrast of home-life versus war-life.
Billy Lynn is an oddball film from one of the most versatile directors alive (who has delivered masterpieces and misfires) that is crude in so many ways. Crude in its use of slick cinematography (lensed by John Toll, known for picaresque sweeping epics like Braveheart); crude in its strange, stunt casting; crude in its depiction of war; crude in the crude vocabulary of its characters; crude in its satire; crude in its frequent utilization of juxtaposition. It's an impossible film to market and a stinging antithesis to patriotic pics like American Sniper which raise so few questions. There is no skillful choreography on display but it's sort of Fosse in its indictment of American entertainment. David O. Russell's Three Kings also comes to mind in terms of the jokey tone and skittishness. Because our characters are laconic, sometimes inexpressive, Jean-Christophe Castelli's script, based upon a novel by Ben Fountain, isn't pitched in smart, snappy dialogue (the humor, like that of a 19-year old is sometimes awkward and lurching), instead the wit is left to the tone and the medium itself.
This is one of the few cinematic war satires I can think of that isn't a lampoon on an American war itself but a lampoon on American civilians in time of war. This is the most arresting and distinctive aspect of Lee's picture. The depiction of the stadium spectators, security, and handlers is flat-out contemptuous. There are flickers of shallow, hollow "thank yous for your service" and a tone-deaf press conference. A cheerleader with a helluva name (Faison Zorn, last name ironically the word for "wrath" in German, played believably with a dash of mockery by Makenzie Leigh) is introduced in a strong scene as an object of desire with a surfacey message of Christianity for Billy, who describes himself as "searching."
It is certainly beneficial that British newcomer Alwyn is so excellent and expressive in his impressive film debut. He's the aching human heart of a movie that's sometimes feels brittle in its brightly-imaged derision. His sister, scarred by a car accident Billy was responsible for, is effectively played by Kristen Stewart whose character is a marginalized voice of reason, regret and urgency. The squad, haunted by the loss of one of their comrades, are a mixed-bag acting-wise but the way they are put on display like dolls in camo duds in the midst of the film's centerpiece--a faux-mounted of a very faux-feeling Destiny's Child half-time performance of "Soldier"--is completely inspired. It's a tremendous joke scene in its satire on spectacle. I was wrapped up in the drumline beat fireworky fakeiness (much ado has been made about the unmistakably fake Beyoncé who we see only from behind) and cynicism. They are also literally used by Martin, who, in the film's most meta-moments, gives them their limo-Hummer game-time spotlight treatment as an incentive to make a movie of their lives on the cheap.
As Billy stumbles to express to understand the "kind of fucked-up" purpose of his experience at the half-time show, the audience of this movie may walk away quizzical and underwhelmed as well. What to do and take away from this movie except another layer of queasy disdain for American life and American consumerism? Perhaps that's enough to be challenged by from this peculiar picture that's more provocative than I think it's been given credit for. In fact it continued to buzz and linger in my mind as I wrote some of this review standing in line in a busy Manhattann basement Marshall's on that too-warm October night, surrounded by a cacophony of shelved crap. ***1/2