‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ Review: Ang Lee Stumbles at 50-Yard Line

Bad writing is further undone by 120 frames-per-second cinematography that turns everything into glossy magazine photos

Last Updated: November 11, 2016 @ 11:03 AM

So who is Billy Lynn, and what is a halftime walk, and why is it long? These questions and a few others are tentatively answered in Ang Lee‘s film adaptation of Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel about an Iraq War veteran named Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) who participates in a grueling Thanksgiving Day halftime performance after coming home from battle in 2004.

Lee has shot “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” at a rate of 120 frames per second with a resolution of 4K in 3D. The always well-meaning Lee and his collaborators have been quoted as saying that this new process is meant to be a step forward when it comes to realism on screen, but the result of their experiment is anything but realistic.

In most of the scenes in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” a figure will stand in the foreground of the frame and the background will be out of focus, and the foregrounded figure is so super-clear that they look like a cut-out with scissors from a glossy magazine. There have been some outstanding examples in recent years of what can be accomplished with immersive 3D imagery, but the extra-clarity 3D in this Lee movie often looks weirdly like something shot on videotape in the 1980s.

What this process means for the actors is that every pore on their face is highlighted as well as wrinkles and blemishes and yellow teeth that would likely not be noticeable otherwise. (This process is surely the nightmare of a performer with any standard degree of physical vanity.) Does this 120 frame rate/4K resolution technique heighten what we can see on a human face, which is what Lee is hoping for? It does seem to give an extra emotional oomph to the close-ups of Kristen Stewart, who plays Billy’s loving sister, but this exaggerated scrutiny totally exposes the all-surface performance of Steve Martin, who is miscast as a villainous tycoon.

How exactly is this new frame rate supposed to look like any sort of progress if the background of a shot is almost always out of focus? The only thing this process in its current state might be good for are shots that are supposed to be from the subjective viewpoint of a character who is losing touch with reality, which is the exact opposite of what Lee intends it for here. Cinematographer Gregg Toland’s experiments with deep focus from 75 years ago feel more radical than anything in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” and any old school split diopter shot with both background and foreground figures in sharp focus might knock any of the images in this movie right off the screen.

A bolder director than Lee might have made a clearer and even blunter connection between American warfare and the American entertainment at the halftime show, but this film is structured with a before-and-after dynamic so that the scenes where Billy Lynn and his fellow soldiers stand behind Destiny’s Child at the halftime show feel far more nerve-wracking and ominous than the unconvincing war scenes, and this deliberate imbalance doesn’t pay off dramatically in any discernible way.

On a narrative level, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is as awkward and half-hearted as its title. Lee demonstrates absolutely no understanding of how the soldiers could or should relate to each other as a team, and the dialogue rhythms are especially off when they try to be funny with each other. The scenes where Billy romances a cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh, “James White”) are especially disastrous, as if both of them were stilted beings from some other planet trying to relate to each other.

Of all the actors here, only Stewart behaves as if she is in a serious film. Her character has been injured and scarred in a car accident, and the marks on her face and on her torso have been convincingly applied so that they stand up to the test of Lee’s new frame-rate process. Perhaps this process is only in its early stages and might improve over time, but for now it does not feel ready for anything but TV soap operas starring actors with the clearest and smoothest possible skin.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” winds up being a wearying experience, not because of its emotional content but because of its lack of cohesion and its ultimate collapse into gross and unearned sentimentality. The impression this movie leaves is one of hapless and anxious super-clear cut-outs interacting with either blurred co-players or blurred backgrounds that look less like life and more like near-sightedness.