A crowd roars, a celebrity sings and dancers gyrate to an infectious beat. These are the trappings of a great American halftime show. Fireworks explode, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk abruptly transports its viewers from the football stadium to an Iraq battlefield erupting with enemy fire. Hip-hop choreography cedes to tactical maneuvering under the desert sun in immersive 3D as it has never been seen before. Ang Lee’s latest feature shows what hell PTSD must be to those fortunate enough to have never experienced it.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the story of a soldier’s conflicted homecoming after an act of heroism during a harrowing day for his squadron. Early critical reception of the film is conflicting as well. On the one hand, its technical innovations are lauded. The feature is the first to be shot at 120 frames per second, in 4K, and RealD 3D. (As of this writing, only two theaters in the US are equipped to project it in its original format.) The effect is an enveloping environment that betrays a level of detail heretofore unknown to audiences. Simultaneously, though, critics decry this formal development as un-cinematic. The higher frame rate — reserved until now for broadcasting sporting events and daytime television — is one associated more closely with the look of football games and soap operas than film.
But Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk does take place on the football field and the battlefield, striking dramatic chords evocative of a popular American war movie tradition. Its material is ripe for fresh perspective. Under such a close lens, national myths that culturally sustain the Iraq war cannot withstand Lee’s scrutiny. Among these, militaristic American masculinity dismantles in close-ups outlining every vein and wrinkle on Steve Martin’s face and in juxtapositions of displays of strength with episodes of vulnerability. For example, the first salute to the military honorees at the football game is immediately followed by an advertisement for an Erectile Dysfunction drug on the JumboTron.
Aware of the shortcomings of the most stoic warriors, and even more cognizant of those of the elite that deployed them, the film does not fail to humanize its characters. As far as Billy and his squadron are concerned, it even treats them sympathetically. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also demonstrates a great deal of reflexivity about itself as a film. The troops have an agent looking for a producer who will buy the rights for their story to turn it into a movie. Consequently, there are winks to the artifice and production of cinema — including the film’s own production — that accompany the technological experimentation. It’s as if Lee were anticipating some of the objections and incongruities that a shift in filmmaking technology can produce.
Ultimately, Ang Lee delivers a smart war film that offers a great deal of empathy to its social actors while still remaining critical of imperialist impulses in American culture. Billy Lynn and his family speak a vernacular that will be relatable for mainstream audiences. But the film’s complexity in its metatextuality and use of new technology elevates it above standard war dramas. In its pioneering use of a higher frame rate and 3D technologies for a “real-life” feature, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk charts a path for future adjustments in dramatic writing and acting in service of the creation of vividly detailed immersive cinematic experiences. While it might not hit its every mark as a bull’s-eye, this is a landmark film with a great contribution to film history that is not to be missed.
Aaron Boalick (@FlixCritic) is a freelance film critic in New York City and Adjunct Faculty in the Film Division of Columbia University.