It’s a good thing that a filmmaker like Ang Lee exists. And no matter what I write in the words ahead, I do appreciate that he takes chances. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a visual spectacle. We think of Hulk as a misfire, but at least Lee tried to do something unique. Brokeback Mountain should have won best picture and deserves its status as “groundbreaking.” And Life of Pi is gorgeous. Though, I do fear that the visuals of Life of Pi is what brings us to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – that Lee felt compelled to somehow up the visual ante and bring us something revolutionary. I think, at its core, this is a good attitude.
Remember in 2012 when Peter Jackson released The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with a frame rate of 48 frames per second? You could still see it in the standard 24 frames per second (which is the speed you watch normal movies), but Jackson at least hoped that 48 frames per second with revolutionize cinema. It did not. Most people either didn’t see The Hobbit with the increased frame rate or, if they did, rejected its visuals as being too “real” and giving the whole proceeding an almost “cheap” look to it, even though the process is very expensive.
With Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (which premiered Friday night at the New York Film Festival), Lee ups the ante to an astounding 120 frames per second (I like to think there was a The Social Network type dialogue surrounding this decision – “48 frames per second isn’t cool; you know what’s cool? A billion frames per second”) that makes the picture look astonishingly real. Hey, guess what? Movies don’t look good when they look “real.” Lee has repeated often that viewers need to keep an open mind about this format. I did keep an open mind, because I respect Lee so much as a filmmaker (as I did with Peter Jackson), but Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk at 120 frames per second looks atrocious.
To be honest, the visuals are so distracting, I’m not entirely sure if there’s a movie of merit in there or not. (As is, I’m telling myself there’s not.) But I would really have to see it again in a normal frame rate to judge it completely. A couple of times I even took off my 3D glasses just to blur the picture a bit in an effort to ground what was happening. It didn’t really work.
Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is a 19-year-old war hero, back from Iraq, who is being honored, along with his troop, during the Texas Professional Football Team’s Thanksgiving halftime show. (This is a minor annoyance, but if a television show like Ballers can use real NFL logos, I have no idea why we get a generic “Texas” team here instead of the Dallas Cowboys.) The soldiers are wined and dined by Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin, who is playing a Jerry Jones-type NFL owner). Through Billy Lynn’s heroic actions, Hollywood has come courting (Chris Tucker plays the soldiers’ agent) and Mr. Oglesby wants a piece of the action.
While all this is going on, we flash back to two days before, as Billy Lynn’s sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) tries to talk Billy Lynn out of returning to Iraq. The film also flashes back to the day of Billy Lynn’s heroics, which was also the day his sergeant (Vin Diesel) is killed in action.
I wouldn’t go as far to say the action scenes in this frame rate are “good,” but they are at least sort of interesting in comparison to everything else we are seeing. But, unfortunately, there’s very little of the movie that takes place in Iraq. For the majority of the film, it’s just the soldiers hanging out at a football stadium. (There’s one scene in which the soldiers are onstage with Destiny’s Child, which is a part of Benjamin Fountain’s book the film is based on, but since of course Beyoncé is not in this movie, we only see the group from behind in a scene that tragically cries, “We couldn’t afford Beyoncé.”)
A huge problem with this presentation is that it’s completely unforgiving. And, to be honest, I’m not convinced Daniel Day-Lewis could pull off a good performance under these conditions. It would be like if Daniel Day-Lewis approached you on the street and just started “acting.” This obviously works in theater, but a lot of work goes into that experience. This is just a very, almost unreal looking person in front of you acting. And if there’s one thing we know about life, Vin Diesel is probably not quite as skilled of an actor as Daniel Day-Lewis.
(I know I am doing a terrible job of explaining why this doesn’t work, but if you take anything away from this, it’s “frame rates over 24 a seconds for a narrative film should not be used.”)
And the thing is, I think there’s some use for this technology. I could see a documentary using this in a great way. A couple of scenes that catch the action of the football game really looked extraordinary. I’m not quite sure how this could realistically be used for sports (or documentaries, for that matter) with the cost involved, but it looked terrific. But, here, I never felt like I was watching a movie. The more realistic everything looked, the faker everything became. I’m glad Ang Lee tried, but I hope he decides against this in the future. He’s too important of a filmmaker for him to get too caught up in this technology that diminishes his work.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.