I can say this about Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: Ang Lee and his cast have their hearts in the right place. Adapted from Ben Fountain's novel of the same name, the film is constantly trying to remind its viewers about the toll that war takes on the people who fight. There are a few scenes in which our Iraq War heroes on a Victory Tour show the debilitating effects of PTSD. The film's core group of soldiers are used by different political and corporate interests at a Thanksgiving football game. The men are treated as symbols--walking flag pins, talking yellow ribbon refrigerator magnets--rather than human beings. Immediately after the game, they're shipping back to Iraq.
But then there's the problem. Lee shot the movie in 4K digital 3D at a high frame rate (HFR). Rather than the traditional 24 frames per second, some sequences of Billy Lynn are shown at 120 frames per second. Ideally the movie screen should feel like a large window and the images like real life.
That may sound great in theory, but it's not. HFR looks plain weird. The story of these soldiers gets completely lost in the cheap look of the film's technology, which makes Billy Lynn feel less of a profound cinematic experience and more like a class project.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Director: Ang Lee Rating: R Release Date: November 11, 2017
You may recall complaints about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey being shown in HFR 3D. Audiences said it looked strange and artificial, which is why neither of the two sequels had HFR screenings. That was just at 48 frames per second. With Billy Lynn, more frames per second doesn't translate into greater verisimilitude. Instead the high frame rate tends to make the movie look amateurish and fake. This is experimental technology, and only two theaters in the United States are equipped with the projectors to properly show the HFR version of Billy Lynn. The full experience is underwhelming on the whole with a few exceptions.
What does HFR look like?
Picture an HD cooking show shot with a consumer-grade digital video camera. Or maybe a local news broadcast viewed on an LCD viewfinder. Movements tend to look overly smooth. In some shots, the figures in the foreground look like they were inserted via green screen. In an early graveyard scene, it felt as if Lee was laying Colorform decals of his actors onto a flat background. 3D never looked so artificial. Other scenes felt like HD versions of cut scenes from 90s video games. I was reminded how expensive things can often be so tacky.
It doesn't help that the cinematography lacks life. The film is built out of mechanical, workmanlike medium shots, flat close-ups, and pristine tracking shots. Lee continually returns to the POV of Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), like a riff on the symmetrical POV dialogue scenes in an Ozu film. There's a problem. Since Billy's eyeline is not trained at the viewer like the people he's speaking to, the Ozu effect is lost from inconsistency. It's one of many curious choices with the overall way the film was shot. The movie doesn't look clinical but synthetic. In terms of camera placement and movement, the movie almost feels as if it was shot by a first-time cinematographer. In fact, the film was lensed by John Toll, whose credits include The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous, and Cloud Atlas. High frame rates may make amateurs of pros.
Occasionally the HFR works well. When Bravo Company takes the field before the game starts and throws some footballs around, the vast length of the field is captured thanks to depth of the tableau. But it's also a tech-demo shot ("Let me show you what this baby can really do!"). The battle scene and halftime show--the sole justification for the technology--are pretty spectacular as well, though more the Iraq scenes than the halftime show. At the Dallas Cowboys game, the troops are meant to share the stage with Destiny's Child. Destiny's Child body doubles, to be more precise. Just when the halftime show seemed like something real, the blatant fake-Beyonce took me right out of the scene.
So much of Billy Lynn is about small character moments rather than big spectacle, which makes the decision for HFR filmmaking somewhat baffling. Billy flirts with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) after a press conference. It's a medium shot with a dark curtain as the background. The distracting look of the frame rate and the lack of 3D depth in the shot called attention to the artifice of the scene and the superfluous use of this technology to tell this story. It would be a bad shot and a poorly blocked scene in 2D, but in glorious 4K 3D the banality of the shot is much more apparent.
I've spent all of this time complaining about the look of the film that I haven't even gotten to the scenes that work. That ought to say something. Lee's got a good lead in Alwyn, who carries the imperfect movie on his back. He has the all-American look coupled with vulnerable eyes. He's a kid always at the verge of breaking, trying to tamp down the unspeakable hurts. Vin Diesel is the late philosopher warrior of Bravo Company, essentially playing Vin Diesel. Kristen Stewart makes a solid impression in her brief supporting role as Billy's anti-war sister Kathryn. A tense Lynn family dinner scene feels more real than the stadium stuff. Garrett Hedlund makes the most of his screen time as the driven head of Bravo Company, a strong center that orients the group. All of the boys in Bravo have an easy camaraderie, though some of it's built on the same old war movie cliches.
This may be just a roundabout way of saying the real immersive material in a movie has nothing to do with 3D or frame rates or spectacle and everything to do with the emotional content. I think about an alternate universe in which Billy Lynn was shot in the same way as The Ice Storm or Brokeback Mountain (and with no fake-Beyonce). I wonder how much more moved I would have been. I wonder what kind of movie this would be. As it is, there's a good movie in Billy Lynn that's constantly struggling to break out and breathe. Witness in 120 frames per second and 4K 3D the folly of mismatched form and content.
It's ironic yet fitting that Billy Lynn's technology gets in the way of what works in the film. This is a movie about people using troops as a means to an end--they're good for ratings, they're good as a recruitment tool, they put butts in seats, they're fantasy figures, they can angle for a movie deal (a cloying, winky, meta element to the film that's too on the nose). It's also a movie about disregarding our troops as people. Lee had good intentions, but is feels like the tragedy of these heroes is just an excuse to play with some new cinematic toys.