NYFF review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee)

Ang Lee gamely takes one for the rest of his profession as he unveils the shiny new technology coming (not very) soon to the multiplex cinema near you for an even higher premium on the ticket price, but ultimately delivers a toothless satire that seems like it’s not aimed at much of anybody. This being the first film ever to be shot and exhibited in the boundary pushing new 4K 120 frames-per-second 3D format, the results might be improved upon in the future but the film will remain as is, a curious artifact and a work that might not have much more legacy than being the answer to a movie trivia question.

In the promotion of the film, the filmmakers have foregrounded the technology narrative to such a degree that the merits of the film feel like a mere afterthought, and this review will treat them as such too, as befits it.

The new technology is truly astounding and eye-opening in the truest sense. It feels like a more consistently sharp image has perhaps never been captured for narrative film. Up to eight times brighter than is currently available even in the best of multiplexes, the film offers the brightest ever 3D to date with no dimming of the colors or contrast. Even through your dark glasses, the image remains vibrant and tactile. The depth of field feels enormous so that you feel like you can see about 100 meters into the frame behind the objects in the foreground. And the glinting sharpness of the image ensures that every inch of the screen is very sharply defined, even objects 100 meters back. In deep focus shots, the entire screen is in tight focus, heavily detailed and in bright light, so that the eye can wander anywhere in the frame and observe sharp dimension and information.

The uptick in detail comes with its caveats too. The ‘film versus digital’ debate rages on in cinema and 4K definitely further pushes the ‘digital look’. Many shots resemble news or iPhone footage, just unnervingly sharp. With the added dimension of deep 3D, even a basic shot of a man standing in front of a crowd renders the man so sharp and the distance between him and the crowd so tangible that it looks like a cutout placed in front of said crowd. In a sense, the human eye has its own imperfections and does not always see an entirely focused, entirely sharp, entirely detailed and well-lit image in the first place. Such detail strips the cinema screen of its glamour and artifice, never letting you escape into the story due to the overwhelming hyperreality of the image.

So that covers the 4K aspect of the technology, and the 3D. 120 FPS remains a more complicated story and the imperfect pariah of this new format. It is admittedly better than the unbearable 48 FPS that Peter Jackson debuted with his equally unbearable The Hobbit films, but some reservations that I had about the earlier tryout remain. 120 FPS is not indescribable: many people have a TV with a 120 Hz refresh rate, which is essentially a crude version of this technology. I myself hate the look and have configured my own TV to the good old 24 FPS, but audiences who bit by bit got used to the higher refresh rate might find the film just fine. The new technology represents an upgrade over your TV in that the content on your TV is still 24 FPS, so the TV through crude approximations up-converts the 24 frames to 120 frames by either repeating every frame five times, or worse, generating four new frames between every two existing frames. Lee’s new camera goes the second route where the upgrade is that, instead of a computer artificially adding frames, the camera actually captures those additional frames, resulting in a much smoother effect.

But it is still problematic in that our eyes, conditioned on a lifetime of 24 FPS consumption, perceive the 120 FPS as too much information, and the most general effect it has is that the movie looks ‘too fast’, even though it’s not. Scenes with little movement play the best, but any panning shot suddenly looks like a cut-scene from a video game and edits especially suffer brutally. Fast cutting in the higher frame rate makes it seem like the images are flying past and makes you feel very unengaged with the visual experience. It is like somebody showing you a photo album but flipping the pages too fast. But this is fixable in the future.

Barring a director’s cut, Lee’s film is not. An inert ‘satire’ about the war in Iraq and the media, Lee’s film lacks any bite or subversion of any kind, making it entirely irrelevant. It is not boring though, as the film provides a steady stream of characters and incidents to maintain interest. The film is structured around a day in the life of the titular Billy Lynn (British debutant Joe Alwyn), on which he is paraded during halftime of a football game in Dallas for the audience’s pleasure and to celebrate his battlefield heroics in Iraq. The film charts this memorable day in great detail from morning to night. He has encounters with a Hollywood agent (Chris Tucker), a ruthless media investor (Steve Martin), a cheerleader he crushes on (Makenzie Leigh), and his squad leader (Garrett Hedlund, very effective as a straight-talking military leader) who is being celebrated alongside him and his unit, and receives text messages from his sister (Kristen Stewart). Additional detail is added through flashbacks to family scenes, his military life in Iraq, the combat incident which brought him his present celebrity, and certain ‘transformational’ encounters with a slain colleague (an unconvincing, messiah-like Vin Diesel).

The screenplay throws in a lot of topical themes – “Don’t ask don’t tell“, the exploitation of soldiers by Hollywood, the consumerist culture of America, the price of military service, PTSD etc. But by the time Stewart, like a liberal mouthpiece, mounts proclamations against WMDs for the third time, it all just seems like empty platitudes. The film has nothing of import to say and adds these ‘themes’ just to color conversations, and strains for some dramatic heft which it never successfully achieves.

In some ways it plays like an extremely old-fashioned and square military pic, where our courageous boys stare down and show the real ‘American’ way to these corrupt leaders of America by ending contentious conversations with pat monologues. Lee seems like he offers a view of the military and the politics therein that is too safe, perhaps afraid as an outsider to stir waters. Even his filmmaking seems lethargic, as besides framing every shot for maximum 3D depth, he doesn’t seem to be doing anything interesting with his camera. Many scenes lack the dynamism and energy and chaos that someone like Scorsese could have brought to the picture. What little narrative momentum there is comes out of two half-baked and vaguely articulated conflicts – whether Billy’s sister will be able to convince him to not return to Iraq, and whether he will be able to bed the cheerleader he will likely never see again. Neither is resolved satisfactorily, as the former lacks any true emotion and the latter any rueful romance that could have been mined from the situation. The film takes a turn towards maudlin sentimentality in its last act that more closely highlights its lack of any true human feeling.

The film might have been uninteresting but for the extremely gentle, ingratiating performance by Alwyn. In his first lead role, or role of any kind for that matter, the open-faced, handsome young actor gives a performance of shy smiles, pretty tears and a kind of scrappy but understated and reserved masculinity that befits a young soldier. Lee, for what seems like half the film, lovingly lingers on the face of Alwyn in extended close-ups, catching every tremor in his facial muscles, every regret in his big eyes, and the barest hint of emotion. Though Alwyn perhaps plays the character as a bit too square (just like the film), and only unconvincingly captures the other aspect of his character – that of the rowdy young red-blooded Texan – the young actor might very well go on to more lead roles and even better performances, his unveiling here to the world definitely representing the discovery of a potential future star.

So we end up with an imperfect but promising new technology, an imperfect performance from a promising young star, and a rather gutless film from Ang Lee. Reportedly a $40M investment, the film should comfortably break even, though award prospects remain cloudy. The question as to why Ang Lee chose to make this film and in this format remains unanswered even after viewing the film. Consider it then a $40M tryout on behalf of studios looking for the next credible way to wheedle more dollars out of you.

The film was exhibited in its native format at the New York Film Festival in one of the only two venues in the country to be able to do so at present.