“This is the first time I showed it to anyone more than myself,” the director Ang Lee said, moments after a preview screening of “Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk.” “I’m like this,” Lee said, making his Starbucks cup tremble dramatically in his hand. “I don’t need coffee.”
Lee’s were hardly the first-night jitters of an ingénue; he has won two Oscars as best director, for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” and 2012’s “Life of Pi.” (He was nominated for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2001.) He has consistently challenged audiences (1993’s “The Wedding Banquet”). And he has consistently challenged the medium: “Pi” was an immersive 3-D experience that expanded the medium and what audiences could expect from the cinema.
Whether they’re expecting “Billy Lynn” is another question. Based on the Ben Fountain novel of 2012, the movie opening Nov. 11 tells the story of the title character (played by Joe Alwyn), a U.S. soldier in Bravo company operating in Iraq. His act of heroism is captured on video, goes viral and makes him and his men a media sensation in the States — so much so that they are dragooned into a halftime performance with Destiny’s Child during the Thanksgiving game at Texas Stadium, replete with the kind of excess that, for some, is what makes America great.
But what the movie will be about — in the press, in the minds of critics, in the eyes of audiences — is a new kind of cinema. Shot in 3-D, at 4K (four times the info on screen) and at an increased frame rate — 24 per second has long been the standard; Lee and cinematographer John Toll shot at 120 — “Billy Lynn” looks like no film we’ve seen before. The clarity is startling; the focus rarely strays; the image is alive enough to seem real, almost. It’s beautiful, in its way. And unforgiving: Steve Martin, who plays fictional Dallas Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby, recalled how much he was looking forward to stepping in front of Lee’s behemoth Sony camera.
“I’m 70 years old. I’m going to be shot in high def. With no makeup,” Martin said. “I’m gonna look fantastic!”
He did come to like the camera, though. “It was quite physically beautiful,” he said. “I became quite attracted to it.”
For his part, novelist Fountain said the film “stayed absolutely true to the spirit of the book, in terms of exploring that gap between reality and fantasy, which is as wide as the Grand Canyon, a continental-wide Grand Canyon, in American life.”
What pleased him particularly, he said, is how the new film technique jibed with that theme.
“There’s a point in the book where Billy is thinking about the news footage that made him famous,” Fountain said, “and he’s thinking about the fact the news footage looks so fake. And he starts thinking about the Hollywood movie that might be made about Bravo and decides that maybe that’s what it takes to make it look real — the fake. And thinking how much faking does it take to make the fake look real . . .
“In a very perverse way,” Fountain said, “it pleases me that not only did Ang capture the spirit, but it overflows the boundaries. His movie busts open all those questions.”
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” — dealing as it does with the price of war, who fights them for us, and how real they are to most Americans — enjoys “perfect timing,” said Kristen Stewart, who plays Billy’s sister, Kathryn, who wants him to leave the Army. She said the impact of our military conflicts on most Americans is almost nil, “unless you’ve had a family member serve.”
The director prefers to stay out of politics (“I let the story tell that itself”). His mission is with the medium.
“It’s just the natural course of my development,” said Lee, who just turned 62, was born in Taiwan, graduated from NYU and has explored a wide variety of film genres. Asked whether the possibilities of traditional 2-D movies had been exhausted, he said, “Yes. But that’s just me. This is an opportunity to do something new, to explore. It’s a natural step.”
The state of the medium itself was another question.
“I’m not going to say it’s exhausted,” he said. “If you want to get into that I’d say maybe ‘The Godfather,’ Maybe. ‘Raging Bull’ probably. Not that there isn’t more to say in moviemaking, but as far as the medium itself, or film language goes, it’s pretty much been there. Yet we make good movies regardless. It’s like oil painting: Because photography happened doesn’t mean painting disappeared. But photography at the beginning wasn’t considered art, and as it developed it became its own art.
“Right now,” said the director, whose movie is poised to be reviled, embraced and / or change movies themselves, “I’m just waiting to see what happens.”
Ang Lee: Jack-of-all-genres
Ang Lee is among our more esteemed filmmakers, a two-time Oscar winner (“Life of Pi,” “Brokeback Mountain”). He has made movies that have been less than blockbusters — one of his best, the NC-17 “Lust, Caution” was seen by tens of people — but there’s little arguing the point that all his movies have been artistic successes. What goes unnoticed, sometimes, is that the Taiwanese-born Lee, who has brought a gimlet-eyed perspective to the most American of topics, and is continuing to push the technological envelope, is also totally promiscuous when it comes to genre. He’s done almost every type of Hollywood movie, as evidenced by the following:
THE COSTUMED PERIOD PIECE “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), featuring Emma Thompson’s Academy Award-winning adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, starred Thompson and Kate Winslet as the Dashwood sisters, whose father dies and leaves them to the cruelty of English inheritance laws. Hugh Grant is terrific, Alan Rickman miraculous.
THE SOCIAL DRAMA “The Ice Storm” (1997) starred Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood and Jamey Sheridan in James Schamus’ Cannes-honored script adapted from the Rick Moody novel, about the ravages of the sexual revolution in well-to-do Connecticut.
THE WESTERN “Ride With the Devil” (1999) was a Civil War movie on horseback about Missouri Bushwackers battling Union Jayhawks. Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and the singer Jewel were among the cast.
THE SUPERHERO FLICK “Hulk” (2003), about the incredible one, starred Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliott. It didn’t stop Marvel from making another version five years later.
THE MARTIAL-ARTS MOVIE “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) was no ordinary Bruce Lee knockoff but a lush, poetic romance starring the world’s then most-popular actor (Chow Yun-fat) along with Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang and Chen Chang. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, won four, and was one of those rare movies nominated for both best picture and best foreign language film. It won the latter.
— JOHN ANDERSON