Ben Fountain’s story has many of movie director Ang Lee’s tropes: the innocent boy making his way through a hostile world to an uncertain future, the adoptive father figure providing unexpected gentleness and wisdom, the feisty girl with compromising motivations, Go West young man to escape the stultifying Nest, characters often have specific religious beliefs, and that you cannot please everyone. Similarly, Ang Lee’s movies usually have love (in particular, the drive to be bonded into some kind of family) as the motivation that ultimately ends up resolving the dramatic predicament.
Greatest Show on Earth. The studios and manufacturers are always looking out for the next big thing: they need to replace the dying 3D TV, even if just by a new fad. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the technical state of the art in commercial movies: high resolution (4K), high frame rate (120 frames per second), 3D, high dynamic range, and Atmos multi-channel sound. That must be at least 40 times the amount of information per second as standard 2K movie have. It is no surprise that the movie was underwritten by Sony: from their POV they are at least getting a sampler movie to test high frame rate on various kinds of critical content: sport, war, music video, spectacle, documentary, domestic drama.
Some technology is just a gimmick: I loved seeing John Waters’ Polyester in “Odorama” which involved scratch-n-sniff cards. But Ang Lee previously showed in Life of Pi he loves the pioneering challenge, in that case 3D animation, to use state-of-the-art technology to bring out the story in the same kinds of subtle ways that lighting and marks are used, adding to the directors’ vocabulary.
So is this technology more like Life of Pi’s 3D, or more like Odorama? And is the movie any good?
Lo-Res Thanks to the geniuses of Australia’s Village cinemas, I first got to see the movie in 2K, standard 24fps frame rate, and 2D. That was how they showed it! Morons. Disaster. Like seeing Wizard of Oz in monochrome. The audience expected a Vin Diesel shoot-em-up from the marketing; when leaving the theatre one guy said to his mate “that was the worst movie I have ever seen”, and he seemed someone who had seen his fair share of terrible movies so he should know. I couldn’t say he was wrong: in places, the down-rendering to 2K was so bad that as to be unwatchable: whenever the camera panned it seemed to take seconds before focus was established: indeed the camera work was bizarre in places: maddening focus work. Scenes where you feel that something is supposed to be going on, but somehow information was missing. All that was left was a feel-bad shell, speckled with a few good minutes of relief whenever anything went bang.
Hi-Res There were only a handful of theatres around the world showing Billy Lynn in its full glory. I went to Taiwan and saw it again in one of them: it was like seeing a different movie. Things made sense. The acting, the eyes, the skin, the gore, the rockets, the explosions, great. The cicadas alone deserve an Oscar. The previously unwatchable scenes were now watchable: they just had too much information to down-render satisfactorily to the lo-fi version. Don’t bother to watch it in low fidelity; if you can see it in 4K, 3D and 48/60 frames, then probably do see it. The lo-fi version is a piano sonata without the piano.
Strengths I don’t agree with most of the reviews about how distracting the high resolution and frame-rate are. At all. …Well not much. There was none of the visible wiglines that marred The Hobbit in a couple of places. It gives so such excitement to the battlefield and the halftime show, and excelled in the kinds of scenes Kristen Stewart is in: with people just sitting around talking your eye can wander around taking in all the detail while your ears do the thinking. Like real life. Yes, it is more like you are there than any other medium I have experienced.
It seems there is a big problem of how to make a high-resolution/frame-rate film where even slight background motion does not distract the eyes: often Ang Lee’s preferred solution is to have an extreme narrow depth of field where the background is crazily out-of-focus: I don’t really buy that this is an attempt to recreate PTSD. This is a killer problem when you have an Altman-style ensemble piece and cannot do sideways tracking shots; the track-in shots don’t seem to have the problem however (but an orbital shot really jars.)
People talk non-stop in this movie.
As is so often the case with Ang Lee movies (contrast with James Cameron), all the actors come out with a lot more credibility in their chops than they came in: Kristen Stewart is brilliant, Garret Hedlund is so sharp, Steve Martin is a bull, newcomer Joe Alwyn is luminous and lovely. There are a lot of static head shots. The actors often need to act only with their stare, and characterization is often signaled just by their skin: notably in the low-res version Tim Blake Nelson’s section felt like a grotesque distraction, while in the high-res version he is brilliant and the scene really advances the revelation of what lies beneath the soldiers’ external calm.
Weaknesses For all that, there were still some negatives: one of Ang Lee’s signatures has been sumptuous colours, costumes and beautiful landscapes, but there is no opportunity to show off as we go from boring concrete room to boring concrete room. And just like Hulk, the end of the movie feels like they ran out of production time: notably in the horrible cliched score (and cliched dialog, cliched imagery, unnecessary attack of the roadies, etc) of the final moments: ruinously bad. Perhaps Ang Lee needs to find a replacement for long-time soundingboard James Shamus, who has moved on to his own projects. I hope there is some Director’s Cut sometime where he can replace some of those really lousy elements of the last scenes, especially that remarkably unsubtle guitar and snare score.
I suspect that a source of audience frustration might be the inconsistency of having those shots with lots of high resolution detail allowing your eye to wander around almost like a VR experience, abutted against shots with tight focus that completely constrain where you must look.
The movie kept fairly faithful to the book: fewer laugh-out-loud moments unfortunately. More of the home visit would have made the movie more entertaining and edgy, and Billy more sympathetic: it was disappointing they cut the father’s role so much.
So if Billy Lynn does not succeed like Lust, Caution, Crouching Tiger, Brokeback or Pi, and is more like a more profound Taking Woodstock (which I am fond of), that does not make it bad at all: I suppose it depends on whether you mark ambition or execution higher. Kubrick’s 2001 is a horrible movie, in parts, but its ambition lifts it to where comparison with normal movies is almost perverse.
Theme And now we get to the crux: what does the movie actually say? It is clearly a moralistic work bordering on satire, but not broad like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five or Wag the Dog. It is ultimately uninterested in the reasons why the US is in Gulf War, indeed that theme is used as a McGuffin. I see many reviews that expect or demand it to be an anti-war movie and then are disappointed or puzzled that there is no satire in the war scenes and the Ugly American at home are not mocked enough: I think they are missing the point. It is not an anti-war or anti-American satire. (Ang Lee said as much in an interview.)
Instead it asks why the soldiers as people are at war: who volunteers to fight?, and who signs up for a second tour? Ang Lee is good showing people (even operating for the most mawkish or self-deceiving of of reasons), but bad at showing stereotypes (witness Hulk.) The Ugly Americans proclaiming their abstract support for the troops are not there to show that the war was stupid because they are stupid, but instead to provide a thesis (patriotism, oil) for why the soldiers fight, for which the real reasons (necessity, opportunity, etc) are then explored as the antithesis.
The book played various misdirection tricks to shift its genre and hide its theme: you don’t know whether it is supposed to be an anti-war tract or hollywood satire or a beat-the-man business caper or what: trying to figure out what the game is was a big part of the fun. Not knowing what genre we are watching is more disorienting in a film, even when this is called out (“That is what we call a movie moment!”) and I think helped some of the thematic confusion that people felt, perhaps mis-attributing this to the high frame rate. By the end, we realize that the reason why the frequent statements by people the soldiers meet “We just want you to know that we support our troops” rings hollow is not because of insincerity (as we would expect in a different movie) but because the troops are out fighting because of, ultimately, a lack of support, of opportunity, in their civilian lives.
So is this a worthy theme, is it novel, is it done interestingly, and is it integral (and not just tacked on)? I think the answer is yes for all four.
Ang’s Trick For people to like a movie with a feel-bad story, there needs to have been a lot of pleasures or uplifts along the way: you need to have enjoyed the ride or fallen in love with the lead, or seen or heard something beautiful or startling, or having your world enlarged. Finding ways to make a feel-bad stories lovable almost summarizes Ang Lee’s mature career. Brokeback Mountain was a feel-bad story (wives unhappy, men unhappy, children unhappy, probably sheep unhappy too) yet a feel-good movie: we had witnessed a love and a chance of a better world. Lust, Caution had that exhilarating moment of escape in the pedicab. Crouching Tiger had people fighting up the top of bamboo. He is good at that.
At high res, high frame-rate, 3D, HDR, etc., I thought Billy Lynn had enough of the necessary balancing pleasures and interest to pull off the same trick: a feel bad story made into an astounding if not loveable film. Yet I can understand if it left some people cold, especially if they had made the basic error of expecting a war movie (like my fellow Sydney audience members) or an anti-war movie (like so many reviewers.) But at low resolution, etc., even those pleasures and interests are stripped out, fatally.