The version of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, two-time Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s new rumination on the Iraq War and PTSD, that you see in your local theater likely won’t be the one the director wishes you would see.
Lee’s preference is for viewers to watch the film in 3D, at 4K resolution (one of the crispest, sharpest pictures available), and 120 frames per second. Most theaters can display films in 3D, and quite a few can handle 4K. It’s the 120 fps that’s causing the consternation, as only a few theaters in the world are equipped to handle it.
Briefly speaking, 120 fps allows for five times as many frames per second as is typical for films. The increased amount of visual information makes for a smoother, more realistic-looking picture — but that has its pitfalls. The standard 24 frames per second allows for a certain amount of remove, a distancing effect that always lets you know you’re watching a movie. At 120 fps, things look a bit like higher definition video — or, as many people put it, like a soap opera. (Billy Lynn is the first film released at 120 fps, but Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit movie made a go of getting the public used to 48 frames per second in 2012.)
The technology has been lambasted by critics, who don’t like its eerie, lifelike images, which can almost prompt an uncanny-valley effect. Especially with 3D and the high resolution image, there are times when Billy Lynn feels almost like it’s really happening in front of you. At times, it gave me a headache from the sheer contrast between the dark theater I was in and a bright, bright screen that seemed almost a window into the real world.
Far be it for me to be a booster for technology that causes me physical discomfort, but Billy Lynn did convince me there’s something to higher frame rates as a filmmaking technique. (Numerous other directors are interested in HFR filmmaking — including James Cameron, who’s using the technique for the Avatar sequels.) I’ll explain why below, but first let’s talk about if the film works at all as a movie.
As a film, Billy Lynn is pretty clumsy
My problems with Billy Lynn stem almost entirely from the film itself. It’s based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel about the members of Bravo Squad, who return home from Iraq in 2004 to find themselves greeted as heroes, thanks to a few small snippets of exhilarating TV footage showing them defending their fallen staff sergeant (a very good Vin Diesel) in battle. The staff sergeant dies. The squad returns home to the welcome of a country already losing interest in the war.
Billy and his squadmates are the guests of honor at an NFL Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas. (The team, probably due to licensing issues, is pointedly not the Cowboys, nor does it boast their famous star logo.) While there, they’re thrust up onstage at halftime to march around while Destiny’s Child performs their hits. All the while, Billy thinks about staying home, about getting an honorable discharge thanks to what’s obviously a major case of PTSD he refuses to acknowledge.
Fountain’s novel, at its core, exists as a satirical swipe at a country that would send so many young people into combat, then lose interest when the war proved more difficult than it had seemed. Both the book and the characters in it are deeply ambivalent about the war itself, with even most of the soldiers pretty sure it’s being fought over nothing.
But the story isn’t ambivalent about the soldiers fighting the war, who are seen as grist for America’s never-ending mill — the country’s poorest offspring, trained as killers and turned, too often, into bloody corpses. The novel, then, is a satirical tragedy, one where the military might be using these young men, but the military is also the only place they’ve ever felt accepted. It might be the only chance they have.
Lee’s film is best when it confronts the consequences of that class divide. The poor sign up for the military because they don’t have many other options at improving their station, while the rich are interested in military members primarily as symbols of the beneficence they believe God has heaped upon them: Doing something nice for a military man makes them feel a little more pure, even if they’ll forget about him the second he leaves their presence.
But this film struggles to translate Fountain’s novel — which essentially turns Billy’s day at the football game into a symbolic retelling of America’s initial interest in and eventual disenchantment with the Iraq War — into something with its own strong point of view. Some of the novel’s more unusual moments are adapted quite literally here, and Lee’s matter-of-fact visuals rob them of the surrealism they invite. Because the film is made for the height of "realistic" technology, it futzes too often with clean, precise frames, when the subject matter cries out for a little scuzziness.
Billy Lynn is built to be small — the performances are tiny and subtle (though newcomer Joe Alwyn is tremendous as the title character), the script is nuanced, and Lee loves close-ups, almost to a fault — and to use that smallness to hint at the depth of its characters' emotions. But the fact that it’s, simultaneously, a tech demo robs it of its best qualities. It’s a movie whose gleaming exterior robs it of the loud, roaring interior you can hear dully on the other side of that thick wall of technology.
Billy Lynn made me a believer in high framerate filmmaking, though
I should say here that I’ve only seen Lee’s preferred 3D, 4K, 120 fps version of Billy Lynn. The version that many filmgoers will see — at 24 fps — has received warmer notices from some critics who shot down the 120 fps version after seeing it at the New York Film Festival, where it had its world premiere.
And it’s easy to spot the deficiencies of high frame rate filmmaking on the surface of Billy Lynn. For one thing, Lee has always favored more nuanced and subtle performances from his actors, but all of that visual information just swallows those performances up — images this big and lifelike require a more theatrical acting style. And that’s to say nothing of the design elements, including everything from makeup effects to a prop newspaper, that look incredibly fake when subjected to this much scrutiny.
But there’s one sequence in Billy Lynn where everything comes together — and where I genuinely believe those who see the 24 fps version are going to miss out on what Lee is up to. When Billy goes up onstage with Destiny’s Child (sadly, played by obvious stand-ins), Lee films most of Billy’s march around the stage and behind it in long, unbroken shots that flash between a Thanksgiving Day football game and the horrors of Iraq.
Lee’s aim with Billy Lynn is to put viewers inside the mind of someone experiencing PTSD, and in this sequence he achieves it — and in a way that made me wonder if the whole effect would be as visceral at a more traditional frame rate. Yes, at 24 fps, you’ll get what Lee is going for, but at 120 fps, it really feels like you’re trapped in Billy’s worldview. The effect is dazzling and haunting.
That goes for some of the other big sequences in the movie as well. The war scenes are chaotic, dusty, and horrifyingly immediate. Even a scene where the guys run around on the football field and toss balls back and forth has a vivid "you are there" quality. But the scenes of people simply sitting and talking can’t stand up to the technological wonderment — you find yourself examining every pore in the actors’ faces, wondering if Steve Martin (as the football team’s owner) looks that pallid naturally, or if the makeup just isn’t up to snuff.
No matter what frame rate you see Billy Lynn at, the movie is a fatally compromised one. It’s probably best seen as an experiment, an attempt to turn a novel that’s, ultimately, a small story of one man’s internal crisis into something big and raw and epic — but an experiment that’s ultimately wounded by its inability to fully commit. Technology is the best reason to see Billy Lynn, but it’s also the reason it’s only about half a movie.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is playing throughout the country.