Billy Lynn’s Long Frame Rate Nightmare
Ang Lee’s potential masterwork is chewed up by distracting, emotionally-distancing technology.
If you’re going to build a compelling cinematic case for the hyper-realistic 3D imagery shot at a rate of 120 frames-per-second with a 4K resolution (boy, that was a mouthful), you can hardly find two more handsome faces than that of newcomer Joe Alwyn and superstar Kristen Stewart to show off your technology. But even the extraordinary appeals of this remarkably talented duo, forcefully playing a brother-sister with complex, turbulent emotions and internal battles etched onto their skin, can’t justify the need for this off-putting, ultra fast frame rate. Yet, 2-time Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) enthusiastically experiments with the combination of these formats in his shakily conceived Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (which premiered at the New York Film Festival on Friday) and hats off to him, one of our most inventive and humanistic storytellers alive, for trying. Even if the unfortunate result is a largely unappealing letdown visually.
During the introduction of the screening (and at a Sony-hosted breakfast earlier Friday morning), Ang Lee stated that our brains love information, and we can process a lot more of it than traditional cinema generally allows us to at 24 frames per second (which is the speed of regular movies). So he ups not only this traditional frame rate, but also the 48 fps rate of 2012’s The Hobbit, which tried to revolutionize cinema and was critiqued as a failure in this pursuit. Lee asserts that one needs a heightened sense of visual realism to truly walk in Billy Lynn’s shoes, a war hero suffering from regret, sorrow and PTSD. In that regard, he attempts to elevate the audience’s association to the film, by injecting a jarringly realistic (and un-cinematic) you-are-there feeling into the experience. Oddly, what he achieves, while looking extremely real, feels anything but real and intimate. The grain-free, cold surfaces on-screen are so crystal clear and glossy that they routinely give the viewers, who desperately try to form an emotional bond with the story, a cold shower throughout the film’s nearly 2-hr running time. The more you try to genuinely connect with Billy Lynn in a Born on the Fourth of July or The Hurt Locker way, the more distracting this whole “hyper-realistic imagery” novelty becomes, overpowering and barricading the film’s emotional sphere completely. (Thankfully, the film’s terrific sound mixing/editing is there to somewhat remedy what the visuals lack.)
Set in 2004, the film is adapted from Ben Fountain’s bestselling novel by Jean-Christophe Castelli, and tells the story of the 19-year-old Billy Lynn (Alwyn, a promising talent to watch), who returns to his all-American home as a hero after his selfless acts at a traumatic battle in the Iraq war. On tour with his ‘Bravo Squad’ to send echoes of his bravery across the nation, Billy Lynn banters with his fellow soldiers and meets an enchanting cheerleader (Makenzie Lee) boisterously attracted to his status as an American hero, while awkwardly preparing for the titular walk at a Texan Football game; the last stop of the squad’s tour. As part of their hectic day of celebration, the crew also attends a Thanksgiving feast hosted by a villainous football league elite (Steve Martin, whose close-ups aren’t flattered by the hyper-realistic imagery) with an interest in turning their American heroism story into a movie. Chris Tucker plays the squad’s agent/manager, tasked to look out for their financial interest throughout this process.
Through long flashbacks, some more seamlessly weaved into the story than others, we take a glimpse into Billy Lynn’s grim days in Iraq and eventual (if temporary) return to his family home, trying to adjust back to a normal life. Other than the ‘long halftime walk’ itself (more on that later), some of Billy Lynn’s most touching scenes are delivered through these moments. A memory that revolves around a tragic, distressing raid into an Iraqi man’s family home (during which Lee stupendously, alarmingly highlights the anger in a child’s eyes) and a heartwarming evening of bonding between Billy Lynn and his scarred, anti-war sister Kathryn (Stewart, who isn’t given enough to do) remind us the astounding storyteller behind the distractingly glossy surface. These brief but effective considerations of what Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk could have been, had it not been chewed up by an emotionally distancing technology, makes the viewing experience all the more frustrating.
As for the titular halftime walk itself –the only sequence that halfway hints what Ang Lee had in mind with his blend of technology– it is a true spectacle, even though it’s choreographed around a hilariously fake Destiny’s Child performance. In this sequence that ultimately critiques the embarrassing superficiality of the halftime show, we dive into Billy’s most crucial memory of the day that turned him into a national hero. In an earlier scene, Billy recognizes the irony of being honored for the worst day of his life and says he isn’t proud of what he’s done. During the halftime walk, Lee luridly puts those complex thoughts on full display through an ostentatious, sensationalistic event, aptly referred to as “some fucked up shit” by one of the squad members later on. (Still, you again wonder what this pivotal scene could have been at 24 fps, shot on 35mm.)
Ultimately, there is a deep, philosophical film buried in here; the one Ang Lee surely envisioned on paper and in his infinitely innovative mind. If only we could have seen that film, and not this strangely alienating one that is bound to exist as a failed technological experiment, rather than the great masterwork it should have been.