Ang Lee made history by releasing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 120 frames per second, but groundbreaking technology doesn’t always instantaneously catch on. Much like how my first-generation Android smartphone worked better as a launching point than an everyday device, Lee’s hyper-realistic wartime drama will be remembered for progressing forward innovation – not execution.
Everything feels too real, to the point of breaking fourth walls into some more pristine reality. Actors are captured like they’re being dangled in a shadowbox before you, dancing like puppets instead of existing in some cinematic fantasy world. Realism becomes a prison, constricting Lee’s creative license to shot selection alone. When does a movie stop being just a movie?
Joe Alwyn stars as the titular Billy Lynn, a Texas war hero spending two weeks touring America with his overnight-sensation Bravo company. It’s Billy who’s caught on camera risking his life for the wounded Shroom (Vin Diesel), making for a viral video that becomes synonymous with patriotism. Everyone wants a piece of Bravo company, including Dallas NFL big-wigh Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin).
On Thanksgiving, Bravo team is to perform at Dallas’ halftime with Destiny’s Child, but the experience holds much more for the young soldiers than exposure. While dealing with an agent fighting for their movie rights (Albert, played by Chris Tucker) and pushy producers, the boys of Bravo learn that fighting a war overseas might not mean as much to the American public as it should. Billy has a long walk ahead of him, and hopefully he’s the same man when he reaches the finish.
So, let’s talk about the most important aspect of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Vin Diesel. KIDDING. Ben Fountain’s novel (adapted by screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli) provides a soldier’s take on PTSD and issues of reintegration into society, but Lee’s 120FPS shooting techniques present a cinematic experience akin to watching SNL in HD. Depth of field becomes extremely fickle (objects in the foreground are pinned against a blurry backdrop), while actors are forced to forgo heavy makeup because of how crisp 120FPS appears.
Maybe this is just the nervous moviegoer inside me who can’t adjust to something new, but 120FPS is not meant for everyday theater experiences. Lee loses all cinematic feel and makes it damn-near impossible for his actors to perform, in large part because every scene feels overstaged. Everything looks too damn perfect.
Close-ups on Steve Martin’s face expose pores and broken capillaries with scary-real detail, as he stares directly into our soul, almost protruding from the screen. I can’t call this “cinema” quite yet because if 120FPS sticks, it’ll change studio movies from the top down. Prosthetics and effects? Can’t mask imperfections anymore. For directors, actors, production designers – it’ll be a new ballgame. One that can adapt to realism cranked to 11, instead of how Lee simply shoots a glistening film in 120FPS without predicting the all-too-flashy outcome.
That said, Lee is able to capture a warrior’s bond through Billy Lynn and Bravo team. Over the course of a single football game, these soldiers beg for the comfort of Iraq after being paraded like prized pigs. Citizens descend upon the suited-up solders, jawing on and on about how they’d sign up if whatever excuse weren’t stopping them while fat-cats just want to exploit the boys for their “story.”
The Middle East occupation is described as a “citizen’s war,” and on the surface, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk puts us in the shoes of soldiers who aren’t movie star stereotypes. Halftime producers throw trained soldiers on a stage with exploding pyrotechnics and jolting imagery (their desert camo gear is selected as a costume because it’s showier and more battle-ready), never once considering that these boys can still be shellshocked from their near-death experiences. Hell, Billy Lynn only gets the girl (Makenzie Leigh) because he’s going BACK to war – not like she wants him to stay or anything. That’s what our veterans and servicemen come home to. Patriotism and national well-wishing until the next heroes arrive and the last batch is forgotten.
Garrett Hedlund, as Bravo’s leading officer, ends up being one of the more likable characters despite his hardass drill Sargent arc whose mission in life is to bust the world’s balls. His searing takedown of a Texas oil tycoon (Tim Blake Nelson) berates a civilian with stoic, disciplined sarcasm, while jokier moments (“just don’t get too close to their hands and mouth” he tells a gazing senior citizen watching Bravo team scarf down dinner) depict how humor is the only thing these boys have.
Elsewhere, Tucker is firing on all cylinders as Bravo’s hustling agent, Martin gets to sleaze it up as a Jerry Jones clone (nice to see J.J. Watt and Richard Sherman playing on the same team) and Vin Diesel spreads his Krishna love through the fog of war – all of whom show the Bravo boys what America thinks of them from the safety of home.
Stars Joe Alwyn, Arturo Castro and more have the weighty task of blending the intensity of warfare with atrocities of home life, disrespect and realities that onlookers can never imagine. Reporters circles like vultures, asking the boys what it’s like to “be so close to the action” like it’s a privilege, pressing Billy Lynn for hand-to-hand combat details. First-person viewpoints from Billy put us in the shoes of a soldier only two weeks removed from death and destruction, knowing full well he’s about to return.
Diesel’s more serene reciting of religious beliefs are juxtaposed against careless stadium workers who throw Bravo to the wolves of showbusiness, contrasting care with greed. Billy Lynn’s own sister – played by Kristen Stewart – attempts to set up a doctor’s evaluation that could prevent Billy from returning to war, pitting a return to Iraqi chaos against an “honorable” discharge. It’s pure in intention, but once again, society shows a complete lack of understanding towards military sacrifice.
Can we get back to that 120FPS methodology for a second though? While I don’t believe such high frame rates service the entire film, Lee serves up visual treats featuring his signature zen. One shot stages Diesel and Alwyn under this gigantic, luscious green-leaved behemoth of a tree, framing some enlightened scene against that emptiness of Middle Eastern deserts. The halftime show itself – especially with Billy’s face plastered on this enormous, laser-bright digital screen – is, in its own right, a spectacle. No further definition needed. Lee’s frame rate selection does pay off, just not consistently.
It’s wartime destruction that suffers the most from such vivid visuals, as concrete walls look like flying foam chunks from a Nickelodeon production when destroyed. Fake-ish blood flows, and practicality becomes cheapened. Color benefits mightily from 120FPS, but close-up conversations and action-heavy elements demand cinematography that buckles under the weight devastation and cinema trickery. Unfortunately for Lee, the slightest camera shake in 120FPS rattles like an earthquake. Can’t say he doesn’t try, though.
I screened Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on Veteran’s Day, so maybe my emotional capacity for honoring national heroes was running a bit high. Boys some ten years young than myself find their way amidst normalcy, fighting for our freedoms while we fumble our appreciation. Ang Lee’s depiction of life after war (or on leave) is a respectful one not without derivative roadbumps, but honest in appeal.
It’s most certain that 120FPS won’t be for everyone, and while some scenes/performances suffer from his ambitious decision, the significance is undeniable. The very first shot is visually sharp enough to cut a diamond, and impressions only increase as Bravo squad walks their long, lonesome road towards Destiny(s Child). “Prolific” might be a strong word, but this is certainly a conversation starter embedded within a warrior’s spirit. For that, Lee’s latest demands to be seen, if only to say you’ve witnessed the beginning of something that could change film history forever.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk will be remembered as a conversation starter for 120FPS 4k technology, but there's still plenty of time before it's perfected.