“I’m not crazy,” said director Ang Lee at the world premiere of his latest film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, at the New York Film Festival last month. The war drama is the first feature film to be shot in native 3D, 4K resolution and at a high frame rate of 120 frames per second. Lee appeared nervous before the screening but assured the audience that at the heart of this ambitious cinematic endeavor was “a great story.”
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk produces notably sharper images than usual at 120 frames per second (or fps; movies are typically shot at 24 fps). But similar to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy (shot at 48 fps), the crispness of its definition results in a jarring on-screen reality that highlights every facial reaction and human imperfection down to the pore. The experience is like watching high definition television on steroids or sitting so close to a live theatrical performance one can’t help but notice the actors’ exaggerated makeup and gestures. Adjusting to this new form of cinematic storytelling becomes such an exhausting exercise that it is difficult to discern whether the story merits the use of such technology.
The story is based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel of the same name which provides an unabashed look at the way we romanticize war and glorify young soldiers while also viewing their actions as entertainment. In the film, a news camera catches young American soldier William “Billy” Lynn (Joe Alwyn, an impressive newcomer) performing an act of heroism during an intense battle in Iraq. Billy becomes a symbol of hope during the “war on terror” and returns to the U.S. with his fellow Bravo team soldiers to be honored at a Dallas Cowboys halftime show.
The soldiers are paraded around at Texas Stadium like movie stars on a publicity tour. They participate in a press conference, rub elbows with wealthy patrons like fictional Dallas Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) and field movie deals through movie agent Albert (Chris Tucker). But throughout the trip, Billy flashes back to traumatic battle scenes, nighttime raids and deep conversations with his compassionate sergeant Shroom (Vin Diesel). The contrast in these experiences is surreal, and the film’s technology aims to highlight it.
Lee and cinematographer John Toll achieve optimal use of high frame rate technology in moments of heightened action and emotional stakes. In a well-lit nighttime scene between Billy and his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), close-ups on their faces give us a deeper sense of their pain as siblings robbed of their youth. A fatal struggle between Lynn and an enemy emphasizes the moral tension of being on the frontlines of war. By presenting harrowing moments in extremely high definition, Lee helps us understand the development of the familial bond between Billy and his comrades as well as his growing detachment from civilian society.
One of the main reasons for Lee’s use of new cinematic technology is the halftime walk sequence. It is meant to be a feast for the eyes but it quickly turns into a circus of unnerving close-ups and almost cartoonish exchanges between characters. The soldiers march down the football field sporting combat uniforms as costumes while performers dance to the pop song “Soldier,” performed by Destiny’s Child (played by fake Destiny’s Child performers whose faces you never see, another distraction). The three-dimensional, high-speed, high definition visuals give moments like these the look of a play, exposing its artifice rather than increasing its reality.
This is the challenge of high frame rate and other modes of “hypercinema,” a term coined by visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner) to describe forms of image capture like high frame rate, virtual reality, 3D and IMAX. These formats aim to transcend cinematic spectacle to produce “immersive” and “hyper-real” stories and experiences. But the newness of these technologies, and the audience’s unfamiliarity with its effects, make it challenging to adapt them for the theatrical film space.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk serves as an experiment in immersive hypercinema but the technology and processes that come with it still have a long way to go. As an accomplished director, Lee is known for pushing the boundaries of cinematic technology and storytelling with groundbreaking films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi. But Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk feels more like one small step rather than a giant leap.