There's this scene about halfway through Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk. It's a signature Ang Lee shot: perfectly composed, almost painterly. Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) sits in the shade of an olive tree beside his sergeant Shroom (Vin Diesel), cleaning his gun and questioning whether he's fit to be a soldier. Film rookie Alwyn—as he does throughout—delivers a touchingly raw performance. Diesel… well, Diesel does the best he can. But just as the emotions begin to hit home, a whimsical 3D sparrow zooms across the screen and the moment is gone.
It's a frustration you'll feel over and over again while watching Lee's blockbuster Oscar contender in its unprecedented technological format. (Only five theaters in the world are equipped to show the film in its absolute full capacity, though plenty will provide at least part of the experience.)
Adapted from Ben Fountain's bestselling book, the film tells the story of a young soldier who returns home to peak Bush-era Amurica. On Thanksgiving Day, he and his unit are paraded around the Dallas Cowboys' stadium, where they are lauded as war heroes for the most traumatic day of their lives. All of this, of course, is tied to agendas that have nothing to do with the soldiers' welfare. Oil millionaires try to assuage their guilt with tone-deaf speeches; Hollywood fast-talkers treat their life stories like the flavor-of-the week; even Destiny's Child gives a tasteless performance of "Soldier" backed by PTSD-triggering fireworks.
I wanted so badly to be moved by this film. I loved the book, and the two-minute trailer alone was enough to make me well up. But the closest I came to shedding a tear in the theater was just the irritation my eyes feel from wearing a pair of 3D glasses on top of my real ones.
Lee upped the budget by a quarter to equip the film with 3D, 4K technology (the typical film's frame rate is 24; Billy Lynn runs at 120—closer to what our eyes see than anything before it). The peculiar sensation will be somewhat familiar to anyone who's seen The Hobbit or watched a sitcom on an HDTV. Actors look almost like cardboard cutouts lined up in front of a painted backdrop. Extras are shown performing their pantomimes in perfect focus, distracting from the real action elsewhere onscreen. Most painful of all are the first-person POV shots, where actors address the camera directly, delivering what looks like the worst PSA ever.
Ironically, the technology is best employed where it is used the least: in the film's spare battle scenes. The kind of quick, chaotic takes you're used to seeing in war movies are instead replaced with an intense, crystal-clear focus. The climactic revelation of "what really happened out there"—an intense and unflinching combat scene—caused my heart to pound in a way I've never felt at the movies. It's one of the few times Lee's pioneering approach effectively evokes a new form of empathy.
Lee has said that it was his goal to get rid of the artificiality of cinematic language, and in that's he's succeeded. He's done away with the kind of movie magic that tricks our senses, manipulates our emotions, and directs our attention. And that's a shame. The hyperrealism enabled by this technology doesn't make it feel like we're at the funeral of a loved one or on the family porch having a heartfelt conversation. It just makes us feel like we're on set, under the lights, with the director breathing down our necks.
The film has plenty of winning elements that deserve better than to be overshadowed. The performances—particularly from exciting new talents Joe Alwyn and Makenzie Leigh—are for the most part top-notch. Kristen Stewart is heartbreaking as the sister helpless to protect Billy, and Garrett Hedlund also shines as his acerbic, no-bullshit sergeant. The book's punchy cynicism doesn't always translate onscreen, but there are moments of brilliant social satire that serve as a reminder not to be too nostalgic about our political past during this circus of an election. Jeff Danna's beautiful, melancholic soundtrack helps ground the film's less bombastic scenes. It's for those parts of the film that I'll be giving it a second chance in 2D this Thanksgiving.
I can't deny that Ang Lee is a visionary, never satisfied with making the same kind of film twice. Unfortunately, his vision this time around is to bring 3D, ultra-high frame rate technology to character-driven dramas. It's a movement that proves that technological advances don't always make for better art; that just because we can, doesn't mean we should.
If—like Billy Lynn—we are meant to feel overwhelmed by the circumstances of Lee's film, that much has worked according to plan. The difference is, Billy Lynn wasn't left feeling numb.