Ang Lee unveils his hyper-real ‘Billy Lynn’ to mixed reviews

The movie, filmed at five times the traditional 24 frames per second, premiered at New York Film Festival

Image Credit: AFP
From left: Steve Martin, Laura Lundy Wheale, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Arturo Castro, Joe Alwyn, Makenzie Leigh, Ang Lee, Chris Tucker and Vin Diesel attend "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" during 54th New York Film Festival at AMC Lincoln Square Theater on October 14, 2016 in New York City.

Mixed reviews greeted Ang Lee’s long anticipated Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk at the New York Film Festival on Friday night, casting further doubts over the promise of Hollywood’s latest technological saviour: high-frame rate filming.

The premiere was one of the autumn movie season’s most closely watched events because Lee’s drama, an adaptation of Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, was made with a faster frame rate than any previous wide release. Aside from being in 3-D and 4K resolution, Lee shot the film — about an Iraq War hero on a victory tour at an NFL game — at 120 frames-per-second, five times the traditional 24 frames per second.

It’s a gambit Peter Jackson tried at a mere 48 frames per second with The Hobbit trilogy, earning bad reviews in the process. James Cameron has hailed it as the future, and has said he will use it in Avatar sequels. But the technology is nascent. Lee’s film, which Sony Pictures will release November 11, is so new that there are only two North American theatres (one in New York, one in Los Angeles) that will be able to project it as crafted. Other theatres will screen different versions.

For the film’s New York Film Festival debut, festivalgoers were transferred across the street from Lincoln Center to a multiplex that was specifically outfitted for the premiere. Lee didn’t try to hide his nerves.

“I’ve done this a lot but you can see I’m nervous,” Lee said before the screening. “I feel like I’m exposed to the high-frame rate, 3-D, high-resolution camera. I can sort of feel for our actors.”

The effect of the format is a hyper-realness that can look, despite its clarity, like video. Backgrounds are so visible that they can appear artificial, while the closeness with the actors can create an unfiltered intimacy. The cast (led by British newcomer Joe Alwyn as the title character, along with Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker and Vin Diesel) performs largely without makeup.

“There’s nothing more we’re craving for than studying each other’s faces,” Lee said. “They deserve this kind of look.”

Lynn’s previous film, The Life of Pi, became a global blockbuster ($609 million worldwide at the box office) that left audiences marvelling at his use of 3-D. Billy Lynn is also unusual in that it’s part war film, part character study — not the kind of movie usually outfitted with digital wizardry.

Instead, Lee employs the technology in pursuit of an immersive first person-like point-of-view, contrasting Lynn’s travels through a football stadium with flashbacks to battle. It’s a satirical commentary on the divide between real warfare and hollow patriotism at home. It’s a big bet for Sony, although the film’s budget of $40 million is relatively small by studio standards.

Though Lee (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) is one of the most respected and lauded filmmakers in Hollywood, initial reactions to his latest work weren’t especially positive. Critics in the crowd were decisively against the high frame rate. In a brief Q&A following the film, the cast (which was seeing the film for the first time) also appeared unsure of how to react to the new format.

“After the movie stopped, after we saw the credits, everyone was just kind of like a deer in headlights, just shocked by the experience the technology allows you,” said Diesel.

Lee appeared to realise the film would require an adjustment for audiences. He pleaded for patience: “It’s new to our eyes,” he said after the screening. Lee said he, too, needed to relearn directing and how he coached actors to accommodate the format. But he argued that Billy Lynn is only the beginning for high frame rate cinema.

“I found clarity is very soothing,” Lee said of the images. “Our eyes do want it.”