Film Reviews

With an Interior Epic, Ang Lee Gets Too Real for His Medium

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a small film burdened with the epic, thanks to both its subject and its setting. Based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, it depicts a day in the life of a young soldier (Joe Alwyn) briefly returning from Iraq to be honored with his squad during a Thanksgiving Day NFL halftime performance by Destiny’s Child. As he flashes back to his time in combat, our hero is torn between horror at what he’ll soon return to and his dedication to his fellow soldiers — specifically, to the small group of raucous, shell-shocked, confused young men with whom he’s traveling. His activist sister (Kristen Stewart), meanwhile, mounts a last-ditch effort to keep him from returning to the front; she’s convinced that a medical case can be made that Billy is too scarred by his experiences to go back. And all this time, the NFL, Destiny’s Child and a viewing audience of millions await.

Director Ang Lee faced a conundrum. Billy and his fellow soldiers’ present-tense experiences during the game are no mere framing device, nor for that matter is Billy’s psychological conflict. That demands he bring us in close (because of the internalized nature of his journey) while also handling spectacle (because we’re in a massive stadium, filled with football fans and surrounded by the All-American display of competition and pop patriotism). And Billy’s memories of the war are not just flashes: The heroism he’s being recognized for involves his killing an Iraqi insurgent who had just mortally wounded Billy's beloved sergeant and friend (Vin Diesel).

“It is sort of weird,” Billy remarks, “being honored for the worst day of your life.” So, in a relatively brief amount of time, Lee has to use these recollections to place us in the reality of war so that we see what this young man has seen. In other words, he has to achieve both intimacy and immersion, scale and substance.

The director has chosen a technological solution to this problem. Billy Lynn was shot utilizing a fancy new high frame rate (HFR) system, at 120 frames per second (as opposed to standard cinema’s 24 frames per second). The movie premiered at the New York Film Festival last month in a crystal-clear 4K 3D digital presentation. Presumably, Lee hopes that HFR, combined with 3D, will provide us with the kind of clarity and realism ordinary movies can’t achieve so that we find ourselves inside that NFL arena, sensing the rush of the crowd and the immensity of the space, while feeling like we could reach out and touch the actors’ faces. And we will experience combat through Billy’s eyes. On paper, that might seem like a clever, perhaps even visionary solution.

Onscreen, however, it’s a disaster. The clarity of Lee’s image is certainly impressive — you can pretty much see every pore on every face — but at 120 frames a second, what we’re watching ceases, on some level, to be cinema. This is that “video effect” that gives some high-definition images the textural quality of a daytime soap opera, a look that makes many of us viscerally recoil when we see it on a big screen. Back in the late 1990s and 2000s, filmmakers and engineers expended quite a bit of effort trying to solve this digital video problem. There is a reason why we need the film effect, the so-called “flicker” of cinema (even if it’s not an actual flicker anymore). Look at the way we refer to movies as “dreams” or talk of their “magic.” The base unreality of motion pictures is critical to their impact. It seeps into the storytelling, the dialogue, the performances, the framing…
Now, self-appointed techno prophets and some gamers — who have embraced aspects of this HFR technology in video games — insist that HFR is a good thing and that, much as happened with color and sound, protestations such as mine will soon be regarded as so much nostalgic, neo-luddite posturing. Maybe. Or maybe not. Video is a fact of our lives, and has been for decades. Generations have been raised on sitcoms and soap operas and TV news and live sporting events and consumer camcorders and, um, porn. You might even say it’s what we go to the movies to get away from.

Ang Lee is, if nothing else, a classicist. Indeed, it is his great skill. I recently watched a beautiful restoration of his 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (available in a new Blu-ray edition) and marveled at how Lee fused the high-flying lunacy of the wuxia genre and wire-fu acrobatics with the careful compositions and deliberate rhythms of classical filmmaking. The results were majestic. I could say something similar about Brokeback Mountain, a gay love story told in the measured cadences of an American epic. But when experienced through the hyperrealism (let’s give it that) of HFR, Lee’s classicism falls apart: There's a stylized artificiality to film acting, to cinematic dialogue, and suddenly, in that stark reality, every line seems overwritten, every performance stilted. The flicker makes the unreal world of the movies possible.

There is a disconnect when it comes to the texture of the images Lee is throwing up onscreen, the story he’s trying to tell and the way he’s chosen to tell it. Radical new technologies require radical new styles. I admire how Michael Mann uses digital video in his work, highlighting its seemingly paradoxical qualities of realism and abstraction, of surveillance and noise.

Lee does try some new things: His camera often adopts the point of view of a character, which results in others directly addressing the camera. That's intriguing, but not enough. The heightened clarity of movement allows smooth pans across the stadium, and it works nicely during the film’s centerpiece: the soldiers’ big halftime appearance, as they walk across the field with Destiny’s Child and a marching band. Lee’s camera swoops and pirouettes around them — taking in their faces, the immensity of the crowd, the razzle-dazzle halftime pyrotechnics blending into their memories of war — and we see how the trauma of combat is appropriated into American media spectacle.

But here’s the thing: A few weeks after its NYFF screening, I got the chance to rewatch Billy Lynn in good old 24 frames per second — no 3D, no high-end, futuristic, ultra-super-duper-mega-projectors, no nothing. And … it looked good. It worked far better as a regular movie. I’d even argue that the pans and the march — those elements specifically sold to us as highlighting the new tech — are actually more impressive at 24 frames.

It was at this screening that I realized that Billy Lynn is, in part, a modern-day backstage musical. It was also at this screening that I gained new appreciation for Joe Alwyn’s wounded yet sweet performance as Billy, a young man desperately trying to hang onto an innocence he knows is long gone. Here, too, I noticed just how good Kristen Stewart is; as Billy’s sister, partly responsible for why he wound up in Iraq in the first place, she has to balance shame, righteousness, regret, love. In 120 frames a second, both Alwyn and Stewart came off as hopelessly stilted; at 24 frames, they breathe with life. But lose the flicker, and you lose the spell.