Our eyes often know things before our brains do, as Ang Lee seems to get: Introducing his latest movie, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, at the New York Film Festival in October, he told the audience, “Our eyes love information from faces.” That’s why he chose to film Billy Lynn—adapted from the novel by Ben Fountain—in an ambitious triple-threat format. In the theaters capable of handling the technology—which, admittedly, are few—audiences can watch Billy Lynn in 120 frames per second (24 frames per second is the standard), and in 4K resolution and 3D. The combination makes the film’s images look—to use a word that’s bandied about casually, even though no one really knows what it means—hyperreal.
Lee’s intent was to use the technology to capture the subtle signals imparted by his actors’ faces. In theory, the idea is noble. But the problems with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk are intricately tied to its special technology, even though most people won’t be able to see it in its intended format. The picture is earnest and at times quietly moving. But tight close-ups alone—and Lee uses an enormous number of them—don’t intensify the drama of a work, or a performance. And for the most part Lee’s actors, some of them doing very fine work, are constrained by the camera’s invasiveness. Visually, the picture gives us almost no room to breathe, which leaves us only a few tight corners in which to feel.
Billy Lynn is set in 2004, a year when there were more than 100,000 troops in Iraq. Billy (Joe Alwyn, whose face has a straightforward, innocent gravity) is one of them, and he has come home to Texas, temporarily, to reap the uneasy rewards of being a war hero: In the midst of battle, he’d rushed in to help his wounded sergeant (played by the always-likable Vin Diesel), and his moment of bravery was captured on a cellphone video. And so he and his platoon have been brought home for a victory tour, including the honor—as it turns out, a rather dubious one—of participating in an elaborate halftime show featuring Destiny’s Child (that is, the trio that launched Beyoncé—she’s depicted in the film as a shapely, anonymous figure with long blond hair, shot only from behind). Led through this strange maze of fame by their wary, protective commander (Garrett Hedlund, in a sharp, subtle performance), the guys are treated like royalty one minute and like property the next. They’re grilled at a press conference, stumbling to answer civilians’ questions that barely connect with their experience. Their manager (Chris Tucker) prowls around like a restless cat, his cellphone glued to his ear, trying to get them a big movie deal. And Billy catches the eye of a sweet, pretty Dallas Cowboys cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh). What stings is that the two are going to be separated almost immediately, as Billy is set to redeploy right after the game, even though his pacifist sister (Kristen Stewart, vibrant and persuasive) has been trying desperately to change his mind.
There’s potentially plenty of emotional weight in this story, and the actors work hard at pulling it. Meanwhile, Lee contrasts the glitzy halftime show with flashbacks from the battle these guys barely lived through: As shot by John Toll, those sequences have a harrowing immediacy. Everything in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk should work—and yet the picture falls flat. It’s a story enslaved by a director’s approach rather than served by it. His mannered placement of the camera is hard to ignore, and the actors suffer for it.
If you’re one of the few who’s able to see Billy Lynn in Lee’s special, souped-up format, what’s in store for you? Unfortunately, the 120fps-4K-3D combo gives the picture the overpolished, vaguely cheap surface texture of a furniture commercial. The images are so shiny they almost feels hot, as if they’re shimmering an inch or so off the screen, looking in vain for something to grab onto. (As a point of comparison, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies were shot at 48 fps, so if you found those hard to look at, the 120fps Billy Lynn is bound to be a bridge too far.) You could say that our eyes just aren’t used to movies looking this way, that we need time to adjust. But what’s the point of retraining our eyes just so we can take pleasure in the greatest gift that good actors have been giving us since the beginning of cinema: The ability to look at, and revel in, faces? Are we so jaded that we really need fresh technology to reacquaint us with something so basic? The actors in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk don’t need any extra bells and whistles. But the visual noise Lee banks around them is deafening.