Mucking up a soldier's story with unnecessary camera trickery, director Ang Lee gets seduced by tech that robs him of his warmth.
A soldier coming home to a life he barely recognizes is the plot of many classic works of fiction, stretching all the way back to Homer’s The Odyssey and forward to Joe Haldeman’s exceptional 1974 sci-fi thinker The Forever War. Using the fulcrum of a manic Thanksgiving Day football game as a pageant for all-American pride—complete with buxom cheerleaders, crass jingoism and the packaging of a national hero in a consumable morsel—Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has all the elements of an Iraq War update of this durable concept.
But in an unexpected circumstance for director Ang Lee—a filmmaker brilliant with literary adaptations (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi)—something terrible has happened. Lee has shot his entire movie at a high frame rate: It’s similar to the effect you might remember from The Hobbit that makes everything look like a cheap behind-the-scenes video. (Congrats if your theater is showing it at the regular speed—we’re jealous of you.) This strategy is wrong at every level. It renders the images nauseating, it constantly rejects you emotionally from the performances, and it’s showy and distracting. Worst, it turns the real issue of post-traumatic stress into a technological gimmick.
What’s behind the slick cinematography? A movie that might have succeeded had it been given a chance to breathe. Newcomer Joe Alwyn is a likable Billy, swarmed by cameras after returning to a nation desperate for white-hatted affirmation. (His “halftime walk” itself is a deafening sequence of craziness, complete with a trio of actors playing Destiny’s Child.) But Lee’s visual immediacy adds an oppressive amount of mopeyness to Kristen Stewart’s performance as Billy’s nervous sister, not to mention a scary number of pores to the humongous face of Steve Martin as a rapacious businessman.
We’re not supposed to be thinking about any of this when entering a narrative. And why pursue hyperrealism if you’re still going to swaddle the whole package in the gooey plunked guitars of composers Jeff and Mychael Danna? Original author Fountain added a deep irony to his book, suggesting a cycle of self-destruction that would never end. Irony can’t survive in Lee’s airless vacuum; he’s not an experimenter at heart, and as a result, his movie feels heartless.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
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