Ang Lee employs groundbreaking technology in his latest film.
Screened as a special event at the 54th New York Film Festival, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a potentially game-changing film. Legendary director Ang Lee made of use of the most state-of-the-art cameras in the world to record the film at an incredible frame rate of 120 frames per second. For the history of the art form, film has always been about 24 frames per second. Rather than take a baby step, Lee made a leaping bound forward into a separate universe of frame rates. The question is whether this change is for better or for worse.
Technology aside, Billy Lynn, based off the eponymous novel by Ben Fountain, is a good story. Billy, played by Joe Alwyn, is the blonde-haired and blue-eyed Texan boy who enlists in the army for the wrong reasons and is then forced to try and navigate the hostile world of war and the things it requires him to do. Each of the other members of his group, nicknamed the Bravo Squad, has their own personality and issue, though most are rather bland. Vin Diesel, in what is an honestly delightful performance, plays Shroom, the eclectic sergeant who teaches Billy about Hinduism and offers him love and guidance. Back home, Kristen Stewart plays Kathryn, Billy’s troubled sister who espouses anti-war ideals at the dinner table, much to the anger of their father. Alwyn, Diesel, and Stewart are the acting highlights of the film and each deliver lovely performances.
The premise of the film is that Billy’s Bravo Squad has been caught on camera committing a heroic act on the battlefield and, following the footage being broadcast all over the news at home, have become soldier celebrities. Now they’ve temporarily come home for a minor victory tour that culminates in an appearance during a Destiny’s Child concert at the halftime show of the Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas. The spectacle of the football game and halftime show is held up in comparison the spectacle of war and the military. Along with the great performances of the leading cast and some truly compelling images, Billy Lynn is a good movie. Admittedly, the plot feels a little bit stale considering all the tropes already in place surrounding war in general and this war in particular.
Though many of the film’s visuals are compelling, it’s not because of the increased frame rate or intense new technology. Most of the film’s best images could’ve been achieved with or without Lee’s overloaded frame rate. For example, a dramatic crane shot that circles around Billy as he stands at the center of the football arena could exist without the enhanced technology. So could the simple yet powerful image of Billy crying as he hears the national anthem. The most compelling image in the film is the moment when, in the thick of battle, Billy looks up and stares directly into the camera. There are tears running down his face and he looks like a little boy who knows he’s just done something terribly wrong and is begging for forgiveness.
Ultimately, Lee’s new technology is impressive. The film, when seen at 4K resolution and in RealD 3D, is truly a visual wonder to behold. However, it’s hard to say what exactly this visual intensity adds to the experience. It certainly feels like it adds little to the actual art of storytelling. In some instances it might even take away from it. Most of the film felt so crisp, real, and lifelike that it was easy to forget one was watching a movie at all. At other points, the visuals felt garish and jarring in an almost too-real sense, making it feel like the audience was in a vast video game rather than watching a war film. Though beautiful, the experience was disorienting. It was also a little confusing. The technology is incredible. Billy Lynn, though very good and lovely to watch, is not really an incredible film. Therefore, it feels like the combination adds little to the movie.
Despite all this, Billy Lynn is still worth a watch just for the stunning appeal of its visuals, whether good or bad.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is directed by Ang Lee and based on a novel by Ben Fountain. It stars Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Garrett Hedlund, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker, and Makenzie Leigh. The film opens in theaters on November 11.
Photo credits: IMDb.