A couple years ago, I was hanging out with my teenage niece, who had never seen Rosemary’s Baby and wanted to watch it. I love the Roman Polanski film, so I was happy to spend a couple hours revisiting it with her. But a funny thing happened: At her house, the TV’s motion-smoothing was on—the default setting that gives shows and movies that weird, glossy, soap-opera look. Normally, I’d switch the setting off immediately, but since I assumed she liked it that way, I decided just to see how it might affect one of my favorite movies.
I can’t say Rosemary’s Baby looked particularly good with motion-smoothing, but I have to admit that, in its own strange way, it added something to the experience. I know Rosemary’s Baby backwards and forwards, but the disorienting effect made the movie seem new. That soap-opera sheen amplified the paranoia and horror of Mia Farrow’s plight—it made every scene feel alien and gave its terror a fresh urgency. Movies aren’t supposed to look like this, I thought, but that was precisely why it worked in this instance: The very process of watching Rosemary’s Baby in this perverted manner gave it an extra captivating hold. It looked like what I knew, but somehow wasn’t.
I say all this to suggest that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the new film from two-time Oscar-winner Ang Lee, doesn’t entirely work, but part of what’s wrong with it is ultimately what makes it succeed. The film was shot at a higher frame rate—120 frames per second (fps)—than the typical 24fps movie, giving it the same hyper-real, soap-opera feel that you get when you have motion-smoothing on a television. Most theaters aren’t equipped to show Billy Lynn at that frame rate—a large percentage of viewers will see it in the 24fps format, which feels normal to our eyes—but I did see it in 120fps and in 3D, and I have to confess that Lee’s experiment is arresting even when the film’s story isn’t always.
Based on Ben Fountain’s novel, the movie stars newcomer Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn, a young Texas man who in the mid-2000s has come home from serving in Iraq to be honored, along with some of his fellow soldiers, at a Dallas football game for their battlefield bravery. They’re going to receive a hero’s welcome as part of a halftime extravaganza supporting the troops, and neither Lynn nor the rest of the buddies (which include Garrett Hedlund’s sarcastic sergeant) quite know what to make of the hubbub being paid them.
Billy Lynn takes place over the course of one day as the soldiers arrive at the stadium and prepare for the halftime show, but it keeps flashing back to Lynn’s memories of Iraq—particularly his time with Shroom (Vin Diesel), an influential sergeant whose death during combat still haunts him.
Lee seeks to make both experiences—the Middle Eastern battlefield and the Dallas halftime hoopla—unnerving in their own way. This is where the 120fps proves surprisingly effective. There is no question the movie’s glossy look is jarring, and I can’t say I ever quite adjusted to it over the film’s running time, but maybe I’m not supposed to. Billy Lynn is, in part, about how soldiers start to discover that, once they go off to war, there really is no “home” for them anymore. Yes, a war zone is fraught with the possibility of death, but the relative banality and tedium of being stateside carries its own unnerving terrors—the sheer absence of danger can be just as rattling. So when Lynn and his buddies travel to the game and are instructed how they’re to perform during the halftime show—they’re even given choreographed moves to perform as if they’re a dance troupe—the surrealism is even more alarming because the physical images projected on the screen look so bizarre.
The 120fps creates a different, but equally effective result during Lynn’s flashbacks. The increased frame rate and the higher-resolution cameras that Lee incorporates give the central battle scene a freakish immediacy unlike any war movie I’ve seen. Lee’s staging of battle isn’t particularly innovative, but the strange bright sheen—the live-TV look—shakes us out of our familiarity with Iraq war dramas. It would be inaccurate to say that we’re truly seeing combat for the first time in Billy Lynn, but our discomfort with this higher frame rate keeps us from settling into preconceived notions of what such a scene will look like. We don’t feel protected, which makes the battlefield deaths feel more immediate and raw.
Lee has often pushed himself, taking on new genres with each movie and, in the case of Life of Pi, embracing 3D and motion-capture technology. He’s had his hits and his misses—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a poetic martial arts movie, while Hulk failed badly in trying to create a different kind of comic-book flick—but that adventurousness has always powered him through his films’ weaker moments.
The same is true with Billy Lynn, which has some of the sharpest cultural commentary Lee has attempted since his deft 1970s satire The Ice Storm. As Lynn and the other soldiers gear up for the halftime show, they (and the audience) begin to understand that they’re nothing more than patriotic props in a gaudy, shameless celebration of American jingoism. It’s a bitter, piercing insight, and Lee and production designer Mark Friedberg do a brilliant job illustrating that with their knowingly over-the-top halftime show, which places Lynn in a waking nightmare no less chilling than the Iraqi battlefield. With Steve Martin playing the Dallas team’s smug, rich Jerry Jones-like owner—Billy Lynn never calls the team the Dallas Cowboys, but it’s clear that’s who it’s supposed to be—the movie is like a late Fellini film with its distorted caricatures and off-center tone, which Lee emphasizes by having the actor deliver a pro-USA monologue directly into the camera that, aided by 120fps and 3D, makes him look like a monster.
But Billy Lynn’s thematic and technical audacity can only distract somewhat from Jean-Christophe Castelli’s undernourished script. Outside of Diesel and Hedlund, nobody else really registers among Lynn’s platoon—and Alwyn can’t do much with a character that’s meant to be a little deer-in-the-headlights. And that’s to say nothing of Kristen Stewart, who’s largely wasted as Lynn’s staunch anti-war sister, and Makenzie Leigh, who plays a sassy Southern cheerleader who falls for Billy so quickly it doesn’t feel very convincing. The movie plays out like a nervy cinematic experiment, more about trying to push the art form forward rather than fully having the expertise to execute it perfectly. I never saw the Hobbit films in 48fps, but I know enough people who did and swear that these higher frame rates are an abomination. I’m curious to check out Billy Lynn in 24fps, but like with Rosemary’s Baby, I’m glad to get a taste of another way of actually “seeing” a movie. But I wouldn’t necessary say it’s a better way.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site