November 10, 2016
Ang Lee is one of the foremost A-list film directors working in Hollywood today. His film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) also won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, as two previous films "The Wedding Banquet" (1993) and "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1994) were likewise nominated for that same award. He remains to be the only Asian (actually the only non-white) director who had won the Oscar for Best Director, and he had won this distinction twice. His first one was for "Brokeback Mountain" (2004) and his second was for "Life of Pi" (2012). This film is his first film out since that last Oscar.
The film is set in 2007. 19-year old Billy Lynn was an American soldier who was sent to fight in Iraq. In an encounter caught on camera, Billy came to the rescue of a fallen comrade and fired his pistol at the enemies in front of him. That footage became viral in the press back home and Billy was hailed as a hero, along with his Bravo Company squad-mates. Upon their return to the US, they were taken on a tour around the country, culminating in a football game in Billy's home state of Texas on Thanksgiving Day . However, even with the trappings of celebrity around him, Billy's mind was still stuck back in Iraq.
For this film, Ang Lee reportedly used a shooting and projection frame rate of 120 frames per second in 3D at 4K HD resolution. This was supposedly at least five times the usual specs used by most A-list cinematographers currently. I only watched in a regular local mall cinema which was not capable of projecting this film at its intended format, but even then, the cinematography of this film was such a immersive winner with its crispness of color and sharp clarity of contrast and depth.
Aside from the cinematography, the other remarkable technical aspect was the editing which was instrumental in getting us in and out of Billy Lynn's traumatized psyche, as the horrors of the war in Iraq haunted him even as he was amidst joyous celebrations in Texas. The big highlight of this was the climactic halftime show itself when Billy stood transfixed on the stage during a frenetic Destiny's Child production number, as the lights and sounds of the fireworks brought him back to his most traumatic moment in Iraq.
In a reflective and personal film like this, I thought that the choice of an unknown, totally new actor Joe Alwyn in the title role of Billy Lynn was a bold yet effectively prescient casting decision. Alwyn had a very expressive face which was essential because Billy's demons were within him. His tears streamed down his face with so much drama. That scene where the Star Spangled Banner was being sung was so well-shot, still pregnant with emotion despite its familiarity.
Another outstanding performance in the film was that of Garrett Hedlund as Billy's sergeant David Dime. He had been around for some time starting since his role as Achilles' boyfriend Patroclus in "Troy" (2004) but relegated to forgettable supporting roles since then. In this one however, Hedlund was a strong supporting presence. He had a charming sense of humor despite the stern demeanor of his character.
Vin Diesel portrayed the inspirational Sgt. "Shroom" Breem, Billy's superior in Iraq. However, his scenes tended to feel too syrupy, but only Diesel can deliver those cheesy lines and still come out unscathed. It was very good to see Steve Martin after what seems to be a long absence from the screen, but the role of millionaire Mr. Oglesby was disappointing for a star like him. Chris Tucker, who played their agent Albert, has really gained a lot of weight since I last saw him and has toned down much from his "Rush Hour" type of comedy.
It is always tough to describe Kristen Stewart's acting style and comment if she was good or not. In her role as Billy's older sister Kathryn, Stewart played this disturbed character with her typical angst-y style of acting and she does well within her comfort zone. She also had an awkward chemistry with Alwyn which did not ring too true. The other female character of note was the very pretty Mackenzie Leigh in the role of Faison Zoren, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who caught Billy's eye (and frankly, who wouldn't be attracted to her?).
The message of this film is clear. A soldier's actual experience in war varied vastly from what lay people back home perceive it to be. The public concept of heroism and patriotism can be patronizing and hypocritical. The sincere sentiment remains valid despite some weak and awkward moments in the script. The overall dramatic effect remains sobering and haunting, as many good war films before it. Oscar nominations are certainly forthcoming. 8/10.