It is easy to admire the intentions of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; the lofty, hyper-real PTSD drama from master auteur Ang Lee, but admiration only goes so far. Many wondered why Lee’s latest was missing on the awards billing this season (he is usually an Academy favourite), yet once viewed, such queries will vanish. For Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is as convoluted, ill-fitting, and downright frustrating as you’d imagine a film entitled Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk could be…
British newcomer Joe Alwyn – impressively masking his accent – plays the titular role; a young US soldier returning from a heroic tour in Iraq. The surrounding media circus has rendered Lynn into a national celebrity, pushing he and his squadron around the country on a promotional tour; one which is set to culminate during the halftime show of a Thanksgiving football game. Throughout the process, harrowing recollections of his service begin to flush, and we are presented with a series of flashbacks showcasing the difficult journey that led him to this day.
After successfully adapting a believably “un-adaptedable” novel in Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi”, transforming the sacred pages into one of the most photorealistic 3D movie-going experiences of the last decade, not only is it understandable why Lee would be attracted to a project such as this, but indeed few would have any right to be sceptical, either. But here’s the thing: Life of Pi was not a one-man-band; rather a labour of tireless love from some of the greatest visual effects and screen artists, who captured the majestically dreamy voyage of one man and a tiger with equal awe and emotion. Billy Lynn is not the same film.
Whilst its predecessor adopted technology to intensity substance, Lee’s latest applies digital techniques entirely for style. In addition to 3D, the project implements a drastically increased frame rate of 120 per second – a huge upwards step from Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, which offered 48 frames per second. Now the doubling of traditional celluloid and digital filmmaking (24 frames per second) gave the Martin Freeman saga a horribly cartoonish aesthetic. Each image awkwardly rendered and filtered, as if the film had been mercilessly strained through Instagram’s inept sharpening tool. At 120 frames per second, the clarity is so frantically intense, that every single moment of the 113 minute duration looks fabricated.
The gloss is overwhelming, the white-washed colour palettes nauseating. For a film consistently striving for immersion, audiences will be taken back by the sheer falseness, leading to almost certain alienation. Lee is a visionary – we all know this; we all respect this – but he selects the wrong narrative to test-run this new visual format, which in turn leaves what could have been a profoundly moving, politically-charged saga as little more than mere shards of shadowed story, all woefully stapled together. The attention to detail never once favours the characters or their experience, instead entirely fixated on bringing their world to razor-sharp, ultra-HD life. Billy Lynn very quickly becomes tedious, and obnoxious because of this; something that no film depicting the emotional complexities of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder should ever be guilty of.
The ensemble cast here, including the likes of Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Garrett Hedlund, Chris Tucker, and Steve Martin, warble like white noise against Lee’s outlandish design. Their individual stories – and indeed their shared one via Lynn’s memory vault – lack any sense of coherence or even weight; rather filling dead space in the sprawling canvas. The film is also teeming with moments which totally rip you from the scene. A horrifying example is a CGI-calibrated Beyoncé, who performs during the feverish halftime show; which ironically looks more cataclysmically over-the-top than the Super Bowl spectacle. Remember that baby scene from American Sniper? Yeah, well this is like that, only intensified by 96 additional frames per second…
Billy Lynn gets to the stage where performance feels more like distraction than dramatic. Diesel and Martin do their utmost given the limited characterisation and dialogue range, whilst Stewart quite frankly saves the project as Lynn’s elder sister Kathryn. But for the most part, no single performer is ever granted adequate time to find their footing, which at 120 frames per second, is only massively amplified. There is a narrative of a reflective sharpness to Lee’s lens hidden away somewhere, but we never dig deep enough into that super-sheen façade to unveil it. As an exercise in future filmmaking technologies, the greatest lesson to be learnt is that no matter how impressive or forward-thinking you can create, there is zero substitute for star and script.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is out now in IMAX 3D and 3D in select cinemas.