While perhaps best remembered for emotional dramas like “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Ice Storm,” filmmaker Ang Lee has constantly been pushing and testing the limits of cinema through technology. The director adopted early (perhaps too early) motion capture techniques for “Hulk,” brought the visual dynamism and wire work of wuxia films to mainstream audiences with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and enveloped moviegoers with the expansive 3D of “Life Of Pi.” We may think of Peter Jackson and James Cameron as the forerunners of modern day movie technology, but Lee is arguably running at pace. But with his latest film, the PTSD drama “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” his use of 4k high definition cameras and 3D, shooting at 120 frames per second (five times higher than the usual 24 frames per second), is a major miscalculation that causes an emotional distance from a well-intentioned drama about the bonds of brotherhood and crisis of identity, instead of engaging the viewer and enhancing the experience.
So let’s talk about that hi-def frame rate. Those familiar with the look of Peter Jackson’s 3D-shot, 48fps rendered “The Hobbit” will be acclimated to the artificial look of the film here, which is akin to high definition soap operas with the motion smoothing on, or the visual aesthetic of ‘80s British comedies like “Fawlty Towers.” This unattractive, even unintentionally comical look is hard to accept, and while the eye does grow somewhat accustomed to the visuals, the movie never really recovers from the stiff awkwardness of the look of the film.
Set circa 2004, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” centers on the titular 19-year-old character having returned from Iraq to the United States as a national hero. Billy (Joe Alwyn) is captured on camera in a dynamic act of heroism, and this moment of valor crystallizes the Iraq war for Americans and transforms the soldier and his Bravo squad into exemplars of bravery.
Back in the U.S., Bravo company is trotted out for promotional glad-handing stops around the nation all the while knowing this furlough of temporary celebrity status will soon be over when they are deployed back to Iraq. As the company grapples with this schism they are brought to Texas, Billy’s home state, for one more appearance, this time during a fireworks-laden halftime show at a Thanksgiving Day football game.
But ‘Halftime Walk’ is about Billy, his identity crisis, and the constant anxiety glistening on his balmy face (which Lee loves to constantly hang on). The movie vacillates between three pegs: the arduously long lead up to the halftime appearance, the flashbacks to the struggles of war in Iraq, and Billy’s sister (Kristen Stewart) looking to convince her brother to get out of returning to the Middle East by encouraging him to see a shrink and claiming the burden of PTSD. “Who is Billy Lynn?” is the existential crisis that haunts the army specialist throughout the movie. Is he a soldier? Is this his calling? Or is he meant to take care of his family and his beloved sister? This is the struggle the distressed Billy faces as he flashes back to the past throughout the picture.
Lee did wonders with 3D in the spiritually moving “Life Of Pi,” pushing the medium forward with CGI tigers and plenty of green screen, with work that is right up there with what Martin Scorsese and James Cameron have done with the format. But it’s the high frame rate that kills the visuals in ‘Billy Lynn,’ taking a small, earnest picture and ironically rendering it flat and lifeless.
There are some pluses and those are mostly from the cast. British actor Joe Alywn is a total discovery and you’d never guess he wasn’t a good ol’ boy from Texas (he nails the accent) and the ensemble is uniformly solid from Vin Diesel and Kristen Stewart, to Garrett Hedlund (in one of his best performances), Steve Martin, and relative newcomer Makenzie Leigh (it’s a strange, motley crew, but it works). Most of the sequences in Iraq are strong, especially the harrowing but all-too-brief war and firefight scenes. In fact, like “The Hobbit,” the action scenes are so compelling, they make the case for the use of high frame rates. For drama? Not so much.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is literally that: the framework of a protracted entrance to a halftime game appearance intercut with would-be meaningful sequences in Iraq. In fact, the construction of the picture is not unlike the recent Clint Eastwood drama “Sully,” which plays out in the present, reaches back to the past, and leads up to the big focal point reveal which we’ve been told about from the very beginning.
Lee appears to be obsessed with capturing the nuance of faces and the emotional qualities that are communicated without words. Yet massive close-ups of Steven Martin and Joe Alwyn talking to one another, with each of them looking straight at the camera in an enveloping frame, is simply unappealing and the opposite of clear-eyed judgement.
Would ‘Billy Lynn’ have been a more captivating film shot and presented in 35mm? It’s hard to say, as some of the protracted picture is just trite (especially a subplot about a movie based on Bravo company). And the jocular levity, while occasionally funny, does lend the film a feeling of inconsequence. ‘Billy Lynn’ has its moments, but its critical and unexpected folly is that the cutting-edge technology diminishes the picture emotionally, its ungainly look trivializes the drama and indulges it with an undesirable air of superficiality. Lee’s clearly going for a hyper-realness with these images, but it undermines the drama and the few beats of moving honesty about who we are, duty and sacrifice. Ang Lee is undoubtedly a visionary filmmaker, but the distracting unpleasantness of his movie’s highly attuned visual clarity, makes for an undiscerning and artificial experience the eye just won’t follow. [C+]