Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Ang Lee’s $40 million camera test, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, ate it hardcore at the box office this past weekend, which is maybe unfair because the movie isn’t THAT bad. Based on a novel by Ben Fountain—adapted by Jean-Christophe Castelli—Billy Lynn is a time-jumping story recounting the heroic action of Bravo Squad in Iraq, contrasted with their heroes’ welcome back home during a Thanksgiving Day NFL game. We’ve all seen this on TV, the celebration of and thunderous applause for veterans and service men and women that makes up part of the pomp and circumstance of football, and Billy Lynn puts us on the field and into the memories of a soldier in order to ask us to consider how goddamn weird that is.
Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) is singled out particularly among his squad as a cell phone camera caught Lynn in a moment of bravery during a firefight in Iraq. In the best-structured reveal of the movie, Lynn’s memories unspool in pieces until, toward the end of the movie, we get to see what that camera phone didn’t capture, and there in that shot is the full tragedy of heroism during war, and the cost it exacts from everyone. Nothing else in Billy Lynn, though, works nearly so well.
And a big part of that is that you can’t see this movie in the way Ang Lee intends. He shot the movie in 4K 3D at 120 frames per second—five times faster than regular film is recorded at 24 FPS. High frame rate (HFR) is incredibly ugly—remember The Hobbit in 48 FPS?—like looking through someone’s window, or watching a recording of a play. But there are only two theaters, one in New York and one in LA, capable of screening Billy Lynn at its proper specs, with a few others screening in half-time, at 60 FPS. The vast majority of the audience, though, is going to watch it at 24 FPS with a 3D option.
Watching it at that speed, you have to imagine what Lee must have intended—for the brightness, the sharpness, the motion to be overwhelming, just as Lynn is overwhelmed. Still, the effect at 24 FPS is unpleasant and confusing, as shots are clearly structured to take advantage of an effect we aren’t seeing. It’s a disorienting experience, like we’re missing half the picture—which technically we are. It also isn’t helped by slipshod storytelling that seems to skip over entire scenes of information and leaves us wondering how we got at the point in the story we’re at. Whether that’s the fault of editing or scripting is impossible to tell, but either way Lee should have been paying at least as much attention to story as he was to technology.
Billy Lynn feels like nothing so much as a very expensive and long camera test, exploring new technology without really investing in the story being told. Lee is a student of Americana, but here it doesn’t feel like he ever found a solid base for his story as he never anchors Billy Lynn in anything but the visceral. There’s some interest in seeing a football game depicted as a Romanesque distraction where true horror and its battle-scarred victims are papered over with cheerleaders, fireworks, and Destiny’s Child, but the grotesquerie of the football spectacle is only half-realized without the ability to see it as it’s meant to be seen.
And even if you can see it at the full 120 FPS, it’s still a messy story that strands its protagonist in a series of steely-eyed reaction shots, the camera often supplanting human involvement in scenes, which leaves the viewer divorced from the emotional impact of the story. For a movie that wants to be about the hidden wounds of war, Billy Lynn is long walk into a cold and disaffected room.
Gary Gershoff/ Brent N. Clarke/ Getty Images