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Ang Lee's 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' shatters war-story mold

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

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By PATRICK RYAN | USA Today | Published: November 6, 2016

NEW YORK (Tribune News Service) — If Ang Lee is on edge, you'd never be able to tell.

It's a mid-October morning and the two-time Oscar winner (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) just premiered his latest film, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, at New York Film Festival the night before. Initial reviews were mixed for the ambitious wartime drama (53% on review aggregate site RottenTomatoes.com), largely because of the way the film was presented: in 3-D, 4K resolution and 120 frames per second (five times faster than the average movie).

"The split is good news for me," says Lee, who is warm and measured sitting in a hotel room with British newcomer Joe Alwyn, who plays titular soldier Billy Lynn. The hyper-real visuals are "a lot to absorb; it's not a universally pleasing movie. If it doesn't split, there's something wrong with it."

Pushback is to be expected "whenever you push boundaries and challenge things," Alwyn adds. "Nobody has seen anything like this."

Billy Lynn (opens in New York and Los Angeles Friday; expands nationwide Nov. 18) follows a 19-year-old Army specialist and Texas native (Alwyn) as he returns home from Iraq for a two-week victory tour in 2004, which culminates in a splashy halftime tribute at a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game.

Labelled a hero by well-wishers and the media after trying to save his comrade (Vin Diesel) who is killed in action, Billy finds his allegiances torn between his fellow soldiers, who are set to return to Iraq right after the game, and his sister (Kristen Stewart), who urges him to stay behind and seek help for his PTSD.

Writing the 2012 novel on which it's based, "I was just trying to figure out why things are the way they are and why everyday life in America feels so completely insane," author Ben Fountain says. He was drawn to the idea of "soldiers who have experienced this very ultimate reality of life and death, and then they get dropped back into mainstream American society. Just the emotional and psychological whipsaw of that — that’s what I wanted to explore."

After winning his second best-director Oscar in 2013 for the visually arresting Life of Pi, also adapted from a best-selling novel, Lee was looking to up the ante with his next project. Unable to get his 3-D Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier boxing movie off the ground, he read Billy Lynn and was hooked by its cinematic possibilities, particularly in its battle scenes and halftime show.

"I joked that I wanted it to be the biggest musical number since The Producers," Lee says of the performance, which arrives midway through the film. The eye-popping sequence is shot almost entirely from Billy's perspective as he and members of the Bravo Company squad march onto the field with girl group Destiny's Child (played by stand-ins of all three members, including Beyoncé). "It's very carefully choreographed. We rehearsed a lot" and shot the 10-minute walk over four nights of the 48-day shoot.

But even more than the giant set pieces, Lee was drawn to the poignant coming-of-age story at Billy Lynn's heart as the timid soldier grapples with people's expectations of and for him.

"I very much identify with Billy," says Lee, 62, who was born and raised in Cold War-era Taiwan and completed mandatory two-year military service as a young man. "Patriotism is what I grew up with; I had my own growing-up experience. Fortunately not as bad as Billy's — I never went to war — but I can associate with what he's going through."

Casting Alwyn, who makes his feature-film debut with Billy Lynn, Lee was drawn to the 25-year-old actor's soulfulness and "all-American" looks. "A minute or two into the first scene, it was pretty obvious," Lee says. But "he was a little skinny back then — I knew we had to beef him up."

Alwyn endured a two-week boot camp in Atlanta run by veterans, where he lived in barracks with seven of his co-stars with no access to technology.

"That was incredibly intense and tough, but also very eye-opening and really brought us together as a group," Alwyn says. "It wasn’t just about learning the tactics of it all and how to use the weapons, it was about psychologically bringing us together as a bunch of brothers, which was so important to the story."

Alwyn "didn’t complain and just kind of put up with the work," says Garrett Hedlund, who plays Billy's wisecracking comrade Sgt. David Dime. Even when they were awoken at 2 a.m. to do 200 push-ups, "he just sucked it up and was so committed."

Throughout shooting, Alwyn also spoke to veterans such as the film's military adviser, Mark Wachter, who served in Iraq and spoke candidly about his struggle to readjust to civilian life and why he enlisted. "From an outside perspective, when people sign up to serve, it just (seems like) a patriotic act. But people go to war for different reasons," Alwyn says. "Whether you're pro-war or anti-war, (the movie) brings it to a very human level."

Billy Lynn's patriotic themes could play well in the heartland with conservative moviegoers, although it's unlikely it'll reach the heights of other recent hits about the Iraq War, such as American Sniper ($350.1 million) or Lone Survivor ($125.1 million). Daniel Loria, editorial director at tracking site Box Office Media, predicts the movie will open in wide release with $18 million and finish off around $75 million, if audiences aren't turned off by its jarring visuals (called "crisp," "fake" and "distracting" by critics).

"Once it opens, we'll have to see if the word of mouth can overshadow mixed critical reception," Loria says. Life of Pi had an advantage because it was released "at a time when a lot of the public was tired of 3-D, and Ang Lee was able to come in and really use the format artistically in a way that few people have. But this sort of technology (in Billy Lynn) is something very different. There is definitely a drawback if it doesn't become a talking point or conversation in a good sense."

Also working against Billy Lynn is its waning awards potential, after its divided reception at the New York Film Festival. Clayton Davis, editor-in-chief/owner of AwardsCircuit.com, predicts possible nominations for cinematography, supporting actress (Stewart) and sound mixing and editing, although he doesn't expect it to factor much into the Oscar race.

"It's one thing to (have) slightly muted praise, but it got kind of beat up," Davis says. "It's a tough place to be in for the film, because I'm sure there are going to be people who respect the ambition of it. ... And Ang Lee has always been (an esteemed) director, so even when he misses ... la Hulk or Taking Woodstock, there is some type of respect that comes with it, like, 'It was a slight misstep. He'll come back from it next time.' "

Lee is taking criticisms of Billy Lynn in stride. He has since prepared other versions of the film to be shown in its nationwide release, since only two theaters in the country (New York's AMC Lincoln Square and Los Angeles' Arclight Hollywood) are equipped to show it in its full 3-D, 4K resolution and 120-frames-per-second format. Talking two weeks after the movie's New York premiere, he is thoughtful.

"There's a question of 'Did I do too much? Too many things at once before people get used to it?' " Lee says. "But this is a new kind of language. We did our best for the time being, and we just move on. It's hard to say my move was right, because what might look wrong now years from now, that might be the right thing to do, and vice versa. So I don't know yet.

"It's going to take time. I just hope I get to do it again."

©2016 USA Today
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