Throughout the day at the New York Film Festival on Friday — at a media breakfast, at the intro to his premiere, at a post-screening Q&A — Ang Lee expressed deep anxiety about taking the wraps off his latest work.
The multiple Oscar winner had directed an adaptation of Ben Fountain's bestselling novel, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." The book is a complex piece of material that covers the ambiguities of war abroad and the excesses of patriotism at home, understandably walking some fine political lines in the process.
But that was far from the riskiest part. Hoping to bring a new level of hyper-reality to the war-picture genre, Lee made his movie with a bevy of formal innovations — shooting in 3-D, with 4K resolution and the ultra-fast 120 frames-per-second rate. (In contrast, Peter Jackson crafted "The Hobbit" franchise, which many saw as too raw and unvarnished, at 48 FPS, just twice the typical speed.) By Lee's own admission, he didn't have the foggiest idea how this all would turn out.
"I've done this [premiere deal] a lot but you can see I'm nervous — I feel like I’m exposed," he said in one of several confessionals. "There's no reference, no culture … you don't even know something's not right,” he said at another point.
He continually thanked the audience. (About 300 people could fit in the specially tricked-out theater for the first screening, at a multiplex away from the festival’s NYFF main site.) He said he appreciated people coming along for the ride and caveated that we're still "babies" when it comes to immersive cinema. Then he turned vulnerable again. "It's really scary, like I don't know how to make movies," he said.
As it turns out, Lee had reason to be nervous.
"Billy Lynn" — which stars newcomer Joe Alwyn as a reluctant Iraq war hero at a Thanksgiving football game — was divisive from the minute it ended. The film cuts between the hoopla of the Dallas game, where Alwyn and his company of army specialists are the guests of honor, and the lead character's traumatic memories of his time in conflict, which mentally crash the festivities. (“It's sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life," he tells a new friend.)
The film doubles as both an intimate look at combat and a broader deconstruction of how those of us who don't fight treat those who do. And all of it had become a lightning rod when the 110 minutes were up.
"Really looked forward to Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Shocked at how terrible it is. Total failure on all levels/certain box office flop," tweeted the New York Post critic Kyle Smith, in one of the more scathing takedowns.
“#BillyLynnsLongHalfTimeWalk: Uneven but compelling soldier drama hobbled by HDTV look (exception: the walk)," posted Indiewire critic Eric Kohn in a more measured take. (After this story was filed, a number of reviews hit, and they were on average more positive, particularly a piece from Variety’s Owen Gleiberman.)
For those who didn’t like the film, the main issues, judging by anecdotal conversations, had to do with the nuts and bolts of filmmaking — structure, dialogue, even acting. Most saw this as a separate issue from technology.
I’m not sure, however, the two can be separated. In fact, I think what makes the movie so powerful — the technology — is exactly what gives the illusion that some other aspects aren’t working. But it’s just that — an illusion.
As an experience, “Billy Lynn” is thrilling. Fountain's book is a triumph first and foremost of point-of-view, and Lee's bold stroke is to try to replicate it, putting you in the middle of the action, on whatever field, football or battle. He sometimes quite directly does this, shooting first-person from Lynn’s perspective so that an enemy fighter or a greasy-fingered fan comes directly at the audience. Sometimes it’s just an eye-level view, horsing around on the field before the game, for instance—with a palpably real and/or 360-degree feel. Either way, you've never felt in the thick of a war — or the pageantry of a football game — this viscerally. I hadn't, anyway.
As producer Marc Platt told The Times earlier in the day, "the movie presents an immersive experience of the reality and emotional journey of soldiers, "The terror of going through a combat situation, how he feel when he arrives home — these are things we never have been able to feel before Ang’s film."
The problem seems to come with Jean-Christophe Castelli’s script — there is some ham-fistedness — and, occasionally, with some moments involving actors. “Heavy-handed” was a word I heard from the naysayers about both. But this is where the illusion comes in.
The script seems to contain a fair number of obvious moments at first blush. But they’re actually not that obvious — or at least no more obvious than many other scripts we give passes to all the time.
A scene where a romantic interest runs up to Lynn before he must leave the game, for instance, was a moment I felt the audience squirm. But this is actually pretty standard screenwriting technique: the rush-to-the-loved-one to prevent them from making a mistake. Hardly the most original gesture, granted, but not deeply groan-worthy either. It only felt groan-worthy here because the gesture wasn’t cloaked in the usual packaging, the gloss that allows us to suspend our disbelief because, hey, it’s a movie, and movies can be a little more dramatic than real life.
This was repeated for me on at least half a dozen other occasions — conflicts between soldiers and other people at the game, or a dying-in-his-arms moment on the battlefield. With a tableaux so real, even basic movie fillips seemed outlandish. Most of our lives, after all, don’t regularly feature movie events. Why should this?
(Those who recall experiments like the "30 Rock" or "ER" live episodes will remember this problem well. The same jokes or drama just seem much more acceptable when put through the filter of traditional filmmaking. Read the live scripts for the shows and they’re actually as airtight as any other episode. But watch them performed live on a screen and something feels off.)
A similar dynamic seems to be happening with performance. The actors themselves are actually uniformly solid, from Steve Martin doing an unctuous Jerry Jones stand-in to Alwyn's quiet precocity, from the ensemble of stellar Army company members to a group of robotically vacant cheerleaders to Kristen Stewart making the absolute most of a thinly designed part as Lynn's conscience-stricken sister.
The problem is that everyone is being asked to act in a movie that itself can be inhospitable to great performance. Because everything around the actors feels so real, when they’re asked to break from that reality — to act in even the most slightly heightened way, or show an emotion that’s bigger than emotions people show in their everyday lives — it can seem artificial or staged. One thought experiment would be to have someone watch the film without all the technology — in a 2-D theater, or on their iPhone — and ask them to evaluate the same acting and script elements. My bet would be reactions nowhere near as ardent.
There's one more issue, I think, with making a narrative film in this hyper-real way — or with making this specific type of narrative film in this hyper-real way.
Lee and his cinematographer, John Toll, shoot their war movie with a kind of stillness, a lack of gloss or artifice or even dramatizing techniques like a handheld camera or a full frame of chaos. But when it comes to war films, we're so used to stylizations that to forsake these techniques is to disorient the viewer. Going for verisimilitude, for something spare — sometimes, even, for eerie silence — is to make your movie not seem like war anymore, no matter how accurate this portrayal might be.
We have no such problem, of course, with documentaries. No one would accuse a fly-on-the-wall film like "Restrepo" of not feeling real enough or seeming staged. Yet we do here. It's the paradox of the narrative war film: The more real you try to make it, the less real it seems. Actual combat, as we know from news footage, feels pretty different from "Saving Private Ryan” — and a lot more like "Billy Lynn." But because we're so steeped in "Private Ryan"-type movie moments, it's ironically "Billy Lynn" that ends up feeling stylized.
Given all this, you could argue that Lee shouldn’t have bothered to make a narrative war film in this hyper-real mode in the first place; the two forms simply don’t mesh. Fair enough. As Lee admitted (and every other immersive filmmaker agrees), we’re still learning which beats and genres work best in this cutting-edge format. But even so, it feels a little unfair to use so many traditional litmus tests to gauge this movie. Our notions of plot, rhythm, dialogue and even character all came about over the course of many years of flat-screen entertainment. To use those same measures, weighted in exactly the same way, for this new mode is an irrelevancy — like criticizing a self-driving car because it lacks a comfortable steering wheel. It’s simply not designed for that purpose.
Whatever one's opinion of “Billy Lynn,” the feeling on one point should be unanimous: There is no one like Ang Lee. The Taiwanese-American director has for so long moved so fluidly between genres that his name has become shorthand in Hollywood for versatility. Now, after the 3-D innovations of "Life of Pi" and the ceiling-shatter of "Billy Lynn," he’s proving himself equally adept at formal reinvention.
But it hardly ends with Lee. Where this film goes, during award season and the box office — and there’s been much chatter on each — is one set of questions. (When the movie begins rolling out next month, it will do so in this 3-D/4K/120FPS format in only two theaters in the country, one in Los Angeles and one in New York, given the technical requirements needed to screen it that way. Most will use what Lee and Platt called a "blended" approach, which might make the look, and reactions, less stark.)
There's a different set of questions, though: Where does immersive cinema head from here? How do movies take advantage of tools they’ve never had before to put us inside the frame in ways we’ve never been? Studio executives, intent on finding reasons for people to get off a Netflix-ed couch and into theaters, are eager to explore these ideas. Before the screening, Sony Pictures chief Tom Rothman told The Times that what was about to unfold was seismic. "There are so few movies you could actually say this about, but it's history,” he said. “It really is.”
Filmmakers, looking to capitalize on new technique and fresh consumer interest, couldn’t be more keen on these forms themselves. Virtual reality has just come to a new swath of consumers via Sony’s PlayStation. New (and veteran) directors are flocking to the medium every day. The idea of movies that give us thrilling new points-of-view is an exciting, and very real, possibility. A few awkward story or character moments is simply the small and entirely acceptable price we pay for it.
“This is still the very beginning of an evolution," Lee said in an interview about immersive cinema and cutting-edge technologies. He’s onto something. We've never seen a movie remotely like “Billy Lynn” before. But you can bet we’ll see plenty more like it in the future.
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT