Saturday, May 18, 2024

Billy Lynn is a very, very long halftime walk

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a perfect title for this historic cinematic feat. It’s pointlessly long, unimaginative, pedantic, and shallow. It’s a movie with breathtaking visuals that make the viewer aware of each and every passing minute.

I saw Billy Lynn the way Ang Lee meant for it to be seen; in 3D at 120FPS. The FPS stands for frames per second. The frames per second refer to the number of frames you see per second projected onto the screen. The higher the frame rate, the crisper the image.

The average movie is approximately 24FPS. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit was 48. Billy Lynn is 120. No film has ever been shot at this high of a frame rate before, for a good reason.

Ang Lee and his cinematographer John Toll have crafted one of the most jarring yet oddly tedious movies in recent memory. Shooting the film at 120FPS means everything looks more real. The problem is when everything looks real, the things that do not look more unreal.

The majority of the movie takes place at a football stadium of a nameless Texan NFL team. It’s a sound stage. Of course, it is. But with the high frame rate you can tell. The realness has tipped over into revealing the fakery involved in the production.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe Lee is trying to heighten the unreality of the situation to symbolize Billy’s (Joe Alwyn) PTSD. The man did rush into enemy fire to rescue his Krishna-spouting commanding officer, Shroom (Vin Diesel). Or maybe he’s trying to show how all the pomp and circumstance we give our boys overseas are just hollow pageantry.

Lee flashes back and forth between Billy and Bravo team in Iraq, Billy at home, and the stadium. It’s not until the titular halftime show that we get the moment that has made Billy famous. The irony is the scene itself is pretty good. Except you are taken out of it again because of the fps. When the soldiers are firing on the insurgents, the camera is beside them. The clarity of the image though doesn’t heighten the reality so much as make you feel like you’re watching a very long-involved first-person shooter.

The movie groans under the weight of its melodramatic script. Jean-Christophe Castelli adapted the story from Ben Fountain’s book. It’s fair to say maybe the story should have remained in the book unread by me. The dialogue ricochets wildly from monosyllabic to cliche locker room banter. The characters behave so erratically we are never allowed to believe these people are real.

No one talks like this. No one behaves like this. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk isn’t populated with people. It’s filled with cutouts, not even the good old-fashioned cardboard kind, either. The newer version of fake. The kind that looks so shiny and real as to make you lean back in your seat, recoiling from the uncanny valley effect.

The story meanders at such a pace from scene to the next as to make you aware of all the time slowly slipping out of your grasp. The movie is a maddening exercise of small magical moments obliterated by this stumbling lazy tone-deaf script.

If this experiment is to work, then the entire language of film as a medium might have to be revised. The simple panning shot is transformed from the simple, elegant act of showing a character move within their space into a tedious waiting period between scenes. Actors appear to be waiting off-stage waiting for the main character’s entrance. It feels like community theater as opposed to larger-than-life images flickering on a towering screen.

Nothing works. Not the characters, the story, or the 120 fps. Nothing. This isn’t a film; it’s a damn shame.

Image courtesy of TriStar Pictures

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