Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Reviews

Last night brought the world premiere of Ang Lee’s latest film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Yesterday we happened to run a featurette exploring director Ang Lee‘s use of new technology that allowed the film to be shot at 120 frames per second (FPS). That’s a significantly higher frame rate than Peter Jackson’s experimental use of 48 FPS for The Hobbit trilogy, and it sounds like the reaction to this format from the first reviews of the movie is even more resistant than to that previous effort.

Most of the criticism from the first Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk reviews are with regards to the distracting presentation (which will end up not matter for general audiences, as we’ll explain at the end). But beyond that, it sounds like the film doesn’t bring anything else potentially groundbreaking to the table, offering another metaphor for our society to deal with in relation to war with some decent performances and occasionally beautiful visuals scattered throughout.

First, the reactions on Twitter last night were not very complimentary, with plenty of distaste for the 120 FPS format. Some of them are downright hateful of the frame rate, some going so far as to call it nothing short abomination of cinema. Here’s some of the immediate reactions:

The full reviews aren’t much more favorable, though they do contain much more praise for the adaptation of the book rather than just focusing on how it’s presented. First up, Eric Kohn at IndieWire found plenty to like, but still found the format to detract from its substance:

Despite its technological wizardry and fancy title, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is a contained drama about one introverted man struggling with repressed emotions. If those ingredients sound out of whack, that’s the essence of Ang Lee’s intermittently admirable and erratic movie. At its core, “Billy Lynn” simply focuses on its leading man’s divided allegiances as he faces postwar trauma and gets lauded as a hero; well-acted and sustained by a smart, if at times jagged screenplay, it might work just fine on the stage. But the filmmaker’s decision to shoot the entire movie with the ambitious trifecta of 3D, 4k resolution and 120 frames-per-second technology produces hyperreal images out of whack with the routine events that dominate the screen.

So long as “Billy Lynn” remains focused on his ambiguous mindset, it remains an engaging, somewhat theatrical character study. But Lee’s ongoing need to complicate his approach yields a movie trapped between conventional narrative tropes and questionable attempts to deliver something that registers on a more visceral level. “It’s not some story, it’s our lives,” insists one member of the Bravo Squad, wrestling with the prospects of a movie deal. Yet “Billy Lynn” is just a decent story laced with attempts to make it larger than life.

Owen Gleiberman at Variety actually found the film’s high frame rate experiment to be one of the elements that help the movie stand out

There’s a grand paradox at work in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” The film isn’t simply a technological experiment; it’s also a highly original, heartfelt, and engrossing story. And part of the power of it lies in the way that those two things are connected. A dizzying clarity of image, after all, is not required for an audience to experience gripping drama or potent emotion. Yet in “Billy Lynn,” the way that everything we see is so alive, so there, seems to have given Lee and his screenwriter, Jean-Christophe Castelli, the freedom to create a movie of unusual, glancing intimacy and formal fluidity, one that’s willing — far more than most movies — to live in the moment, and to lure the audience inside that moment. In “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” reality truly is the ultimate special effect. Lee takes an evolutionary leap in technology, but he does it only to lead us back to what movies used to be.

Dan Callahan at The Wrap also spent some time criticizing the lack of necessity that 120 FPS has on the film’s presentation, but what he said about the film itself feels more pressing:

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.

“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.

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David Rooney at The Hollywood Reporter had this to say about the adaptation:

The film generally is most interesting when it cranks up the sensory overload, juxtaposing the breathless panic of battle sequences with the out-of-body experience of endless strangers looming into view to spout platitudes about courage, sacrifice and protecting our freedoms. The emptiness of those words is magnified in Alwyn’s stunned eyes as Billy becomes increasingly aware that most people are willfully indifferent to real suffering, instead preferring their heroism in clean, convenient packages.

[Ang] Lee and [writer Jean-Christophe Castelli] Castelli refrain from hammering that point, which means the movie is less hard-hitting than fans of the book might have hoped. However, while Billy’s comradeship is cemented as much back in America as it was in Iraq, his face betrays a loss of innocence as he registers every gaudy excess, every conspicuous luxury and every trivializing slight, right up to a crackling confrontation in which he calls out Norm on the exploitative nature of his interest in Bravo. That makes Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk an absorbing character study, even if it’s ultimately not one that justifies its much-vaunted technological advances.

Benjamin Lee at The Guardian didn’t find much of anything redeeming in the movie though:

It’s a curious, often lifeless film that has something to say and at times, almost makes a point or two, but too often it meanders awkwardly and Lee’s decision to shoot it in this way only serves to show up the inadequacies even more. Any false note, and there are quite a few from a cast of newcomers, is amplified and when a note doesn’t ring true, it falls with a thud, harder than usual.

Taking away the technology, there’s still a jarring mismatch between source material and film-maker. Fountain’s novel was praised for its post-modern satire, something that has only made it to the screen in brief glimpses. There’s a meta sub-plot about the squadron’s heroic actions being adapted for the big screen with jabs made about the generic nature of Hollywoodised war films and Lee does deserve credit for not turning the project into American Sniper 2. But one feels as if there was a smarter, sharper, sadder film to be made here.

Mike Ryan at Uproxx takes Ang Lee’s use of 120 FPS to task, and he found the format so distracting that he’s not entirely sure if the movie itself actually holds any merit:

Hey, guess what? Movies don’t look good when they look “real.” Lee has repeated often that viewers need to keep an open mind about this format. I did keep an open mind, because I respect Lee so much as a filmmaker (as I did with Peter Jackson), but Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk at 120 frames per second looks atrocious.

To be honest, the visuals are so distracting, I’m not entirely sure if there’s a movie of merit in there or not. (As is, I’m telling myself there’s not.) But I would really have to see it again in a normal frame rate to judge it completely. A couple of times I even took off my 3D glasses just to blur the picture a bit in an effort to ground what was happening. It didn’t really work.

Finally, Steven Zeitchek at The Los Angeles Times attempts to determine if we can separate the movie from the frame rate technology used to present it at the premiere screening. In an article full of various reactions and reasoning which you should read in full, he notes:

From anecdotal conversations, the main issues had to do with the nuts and bolts of filmmaking — structure, dialogue, even acting. Most saw this as a separate issue from technology.

I’m not sure, however, the two can be separated. In fact, I think what makes the movie so powerful — the technology — is exactly what gives the illusion some other aspects aren’t working. But it’s just that — an illusion.

As an experience, “Billy Lynn” is thrilling. Fountain’s book is a triumph first and foremost of point-of-view, and Lee’s bold stroke is to try to replicate it, putting you in the middle of the action, on whatever field, football or battle. (He sometimes quite directly does this, shooting first-person from Lynn’s perspective so that an enemy fighter or a greasy-fingered fan comes directly at the audience.) You’ve never felt in the thick of a war — or the pageantry of a football game — this viscerally. I hadn’t, anyway.

***

At the end of the day, the criticism of the new format in which Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is presented shouldn’t have much of an impact on whether audiences seek out this movie. There will only be two theaters that will be able to show Ang Lee’s film in the proper 120 FPS, 4K, 3D format. Most audiences will see it in standard digital projection and won’t have a problem.

But if this is how Ang Lee wants to shoot his movies, it appears his narrative is going to suffer from being presented in a wholly distracting way, not only with regards to our traditional perception of cinema but also because our biology doesn’t allow us to easily adjust to how the visuals are presented.

Beyond the technology, it appears the film doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking in the war drama department. But considering how films like American Sniper have performed, this could turn out to be an awards season success with general audiences.

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