When journalist Sebastian Junger returned to New York after surviving a rocket attack in Afghanistan, suddenly the world he knew felt strange. “I couldn’t quite explain what was wrong,” he wrote. He waited for the C train, just as he’d done hundreds of times before. But now, the subway was scary: “There were too many people on the platform, the trains were coming into the station too fast, the lights were too bright, the world was too loud.”
Junger thought he was going crazy. He learned he had PTSD. Before we had a word for it, Hollywood channelled that alarm in angry thrillers like First Blood and The Deer Hunter, where ex-soldiers snapped and grabbed guns. In the 15 years since 9/11, we’ve given PTSD our empathy, and the movies have, too. Stop/Loss and The Messenger sent vets Ryan Phillippe and Ben Foster rattling around our small towns, usually winding up at the bar. Clint Eastwood’s otherwise flawed American Sniper ached for Sienna Miller’s military wife when she looked at her husband and sighed, “There’s a strange man in my bedroom.” The Hurt Locker capped off two hours of sand and stress with a shot of unflappable bomb-defuser Jeremy Renner blinking in confusion at a supermarket aisle full of bright breakfast cereals. Thirty seconds of Muzak and we understand why he reenlists. He doesn’t fit here anymore.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk tries a new tactic. Instead of appealing to our hearts and minds, director Ang Lee drills directly into our nervous system using a bizarre technology: High Frame Rate. Pretty much every film you’ve ever seen flashes 24 images per second. Billy Lynn, named for the soldier (Joe Alwyn, angelic) given a hero’s homecoming after watching his friend die, blasts 120. It’s five times as fast — so hyperreal our eyes hurt. Today, Billy is going to go to an NFL game. He’s going to meet Beyoncé. He's going to drink vodka, get high, and fall in lust with a cheerleader. And it’s going to feel terrible.
With High Frame Rate, things do move faster. People walk weirdly, talk weirdly. The lights are too bright. When Lee pans across Sergeant Shroom’s (Vin Diesel) funeral at Arlington Cemetery, we can read every grave. All those names; all those lives. When the ceremonial rifles fire their 21-gun salute, we’re startled by the flames. Were those always there? They must have been there. How can we shut off our senses? Will the world ever look the same again?
This feels like the heart-pounding panic Junger described.
High Frame Rate technology is repellent, but you should see Billy Lynn that way, even if your theater also offers it in soothing 24 fps. Audiences don’t like HFR, and filmmakers are still learning how to play with their new toy. Mostly, they shouldn’t. Peter Jackson tried to in The Hobbit and the clarity sabotaged the fantasy. You didn’t see dwarves — you saw mustache glue. But Lee’s use of High Frame Rate becomes a literal window into Billy Lynn’s head. We’re not supposed to feel comfortable. In flashbacks, Billy and his Bravo Squad patrol a cramped Iraqi market and everything sets off our alarms: two kids releasing a pigeon on a roof, an old man flicking a lighter. Nothing happens, yet we’re clawing out of our skin. When the violence starts, even the blood looks different. Snipers describe the perfect headshot as a “pink mist.” Lee shows us every drop. It’s not a visceral, queasily thrilling movie squib. Here, death is calmer, lovelier, and colder — as matter-of-fact as a cloud.
Billy Lynn is most alien when Lee takes the troops to paradise: a Dallas Cowboys game where the Bravo Squad will march behind Destiny’s Child during the Thanksgiving halftime spectacular. Thanks to our blitzed eyeballs, this normal American celebration already looks insane. There’s so much overwhelming movement — so many pom-poms and feathered marching band caps and rowdy jocks and big Texas bouffants that we want to hide under our seats.
But it’s also surreal because Lee, the Taiwanese-born two-time Oscar winner who’s spent half of his career as an anthropologist of the US of A with films like The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain, paints a football game like a hellscape by Hieronymus Bosch. He zooms in on large-bellied spectators clutching French fries and beers, and pictures them holding signs that read inanities like “#1 Fan.” Lee has an ear for the unconsciously absurd. There’s a scene where the Bravo Squad members are asked to stand so the entire stadium can salute their service. The applause is sincere. But before they sit down, the Jumbotron has switched over to an erectile dysfunction ad. Patriotism is just one more commercial clamoring for attention.
During the halftime show of the title, Lee’s mania for detail becomes wicked comedy. There are the soldiers, marching dutifully behind Destiny’s Child. There is Destiny’s Child's pop-star sexy march, the hip-wiggling strut that now looks like a rude lampoon. At the climax, Lee spins around Billy as the girls sing “Soldier.” He’s paralyzed — shocked and awed — by the fireworks and spinning-guns frenzy. This applause isn’t for him. Billy Lynn and the Bravo Squad are fiction, but this Thanksgiving halftime show is real. You can watch it yourself, just like author Ben Fountain must have when he built his original novel around this strange display of zeal.
That Beyoncé hasn’t yet gone solo is the first hint that Billy Lynn is a period piece. It’s set in 2004, seven months before the group split, and before the country realized that the War on Terror would define the next decade of its life. The people Billy meets, from the journalists to the bros ragging on him for Don’t Ask, Don't Tell, all talk callously about the war, which they imagine is more or less over. (After all, Bush unfurled his “Mission Accomplished” banner back in May 2003.) Eleven years ago, Americans still imagined this overseas war as something we could win — in my lifetime, it always had been so — not something shapeless and unstoppable. Back then, a rich football owner could call the Iraq invasion “as pure a fight between good and evil as we’ll ever see,” even though Abu Ghraib had already happened.
Here, words hurt, too. Billy is heaped with sour congratulations. An oil man (Tim Blake Nelson) thanks the squad for helping his sales. Billy is asked to tell exciting adventure stories about what it’s like to “get to engage the enemy up close.” Lee’s close-ups are so aware of Alwyn’s face that we see those two words — “get to,” like he was lucky to have an opportunity to kill — hit Billy like a slap.
The NFL and the Dallas Cowboys didn’t give Lee permission to use their names. No wonder — to him and Billy Lynn, this is hell. And Billy is from Texas. He’s so close to home that his sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart, great as ever), threatens to pick him up after the game so he doesn’t have to ride that stretch Hummer back to the base. She’d rather he go AWOL than risk never coming home again. Their bond is so strong that Billy’s commander (Garrett Hedlund, in a welcome return to the screen) jokes, “I know how you Texas boys are about your sisters.”
Kathryn can be a bully. But at least she’s a believable character. The Christian cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) Billy romances backstage is a nut, and it’s only in her last scene that the film admits it. So much of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk seems jarring and clumsy. Screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli’s storytelling skips a few beats. There’s a shot of Billy weeping during the national anthem that doesn't connect. People act in fast-forward, like the Hollywood agent (Chris Tucker) attempting to sell the Bravo Squad’s story as a film, ideally for Matt Damon or Mark Wahlberg, but Hilary Swank will suffice. Later, Lee lifts one gag wholesale from A Hard Day’s Night, when the boys steal a football and take over the field until they’re screamed at by the squares. How much are we supposed to laugh? Lee doesn’t always feel like he has a handle on what he wants to say — or maybe confusion, the sense that we’re lost in the action, is his point.
But why should we expect Lee to be coherent about the war when we aren’t? Like him, we, too, are both sentimental and cynical. Maybe we don’t need an answer. We just need to better understand the turmoil we’ve forced onto soldiers on the front lines, and Lee has certainly done that. His foreign perspective is necessary. No Iraq movie has better captured our country’s nationalistic nonsense, and the inner chaos of the men and women returning home to this noise. Billy Lynn’s own movie-within-the-movie certainly won’t. It’s a cash grab wrapped up in a flag. “You guys deserve to get this movie made,” vows Tucker’s agent. “I will go to China if I have to.” It turns out that this story had to be made by a director from Taiwan.