Ang Lee's High Frame Rate Flop

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
(USA, 110 min.)
Dir. Ang Lee, Writ. Jean-Christophe Castelli
Starring: Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, the fakest Beyoncé you’ll ever see, Kristen Stewart
Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), dancers, and Alabama State Marching Hornets in TriStar Pictures' Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.
Photo by Mary Cybulski, courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment

“Ang, this looks terrible,” says a producer during a conversation that surely must have happened at some point while screening the rushes for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

“This is fine,” replies Lee, not unlike the dog who, in a popular meme, finishes his coffee while the room around him engulfs in flames.

While the fire burns, Lee takes notes (or, more likely, calculates his pension) in his trusty director’s diary as he sits with his producers and financiers. They’re watching the early footage for Lee’s ambitious adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and the sounds of jaws dropping, faces wincing, and dollars burning are audible. The tension in the screening room combusts as everyone realises how flat-out terrible the film looks in the swanky new 120 frames-per-second frame rate. It offers five times as many images per second than the industry standard, but looks ten times worse than Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit does at 48 fps with its cheap Coronation Street aesthetic. Call it Ang Lee’s High Frame Rate Flop.

Why anyone would allow an entire film to progress through completion in such a colossally bad state is a serious error in judgement. The catastrophic failure of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk really is disappointing if one considers that Lee is a master of technical innovation and emotional authenticity like the high wire action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the films behind of Best Director Oscars he won, Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi. Coming off the massive commercial and critical success for the technical innovation of Life of Pi, the latest film by this visual effects wizard and arthouse auteur should have been a marriage of the director’s two very different streams of vision. Sometimes risks pay off and sometimes they don’t, and Lee’s 120fps gamble was a bad call. (Note: this review considers the 2D 120fps projection currently playing in Toronto, as only two theatres in North America have the technical capabilities to screen in the full 3D shebang.)

The high frame rate doesn’t work because the images of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk look so outrageously, awkwardly, and distractingly real. The details of the image strip away any element of artistry or escapism. The extra frames accentuate every single manipulation within the frame. The camera movement is comically jerky, while each extra in the background has a heightened presence. There’s no distinction between background and foreground: every element of the frame becomes prominent. The result is a series of busy images that amount to sensory overload, particularly if actors move across the frame at the same time that the camera pans. What were once seamless and unobstructive now become fatally distracting.

The frame rate creates a distancing effect from the moment that Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) rolls out of bed in the opening scene. This gap between the audience and the character proves frustrating since the book by Ben Fountain does an incredible job at putting the reader inside Bill Lynn’s head. As Billy and the men of Brave Company, on tour of the USA as heroes following an explosive battle in Iraq, await their cue to take the Super Bowl halftime show with Destiny’s Child, Fountain taps into a generation of young men who have so few opportunities at home that a flawed war is the lesser of two evils. The book is The Deer Hunter for Millennials, but Lee’s film is just a failed technical experiment.

The performances of Billy Lynn are the greatest casualty in this lame adaptation, as everyone appears wooden and stilted in the film’s unconvincing technical act. Kristen Stewart fares best in about seven minutes of screen time as Billy’s sister who desperately wants him to quit the war. Other performers range from awkward to hideous with most of the supporting characters, like the fallen soldier Shroom (Vin Diesel) and the sexpot Christian cheerleader Faison (Mackenzie Davis) being nothing but vehicles for dropping one liners that scream THEMES and PROPHETIC.

The most hilarious treasure of film, however, is a flat-out ridiculous stand-in for Beyoncé Knowles during the halftime show. This case is the one in which the high frame rate betrays the film the most, as some shallow focus and softer details might have helped obscure the fact that the voluptuous entertainer with her back to the Bravo boys is not the Destiny’s Child star. Instead, Billy Lynn leaves the audience with a meticulously detailed wig that looks so cheap and cartoonish that a Beyoncé impersonator in a drag show would not even make it part of her act. If one can’t get Beyoncé, just change the role to a lesser star or fictional character, especially when the camera erases any cinematic tricks.

Lee also shoots much of the film using close-ups and direct addresses from the actors, so the details of their faces as they stare into one’s eyes are just plain awkward. The camera highlights every element of artifice, so what usually plays as a natural and intimate shot becomes an alienating interaction that removes one from the film, rather than draws one in.

One never forgets that one is watching a movie while taking in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Characters are actors. Special effects are dust and light. Words are fragments of a script.  The high frame rate simply undermines every effort the cast and crew makes to deliver a work of art. It seems redundant to put in so much effort into transporting audiences into the world of the story just to strip it all away. As Blanche says in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I don’t want realism. I want magic!”

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is now playing in select theatres.