On Friday night, a sheepish Ang Lee welcomed the first audience to ever see his new movie “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” The drama, centered on a troop of soldiers coming home from the Iraq War, isn’t just a mouthful to say. It’s also a feast for your eyes: shot using special technology that Lee took years to develop. “I feel like I’m exposed by the high-frame rate,” Lee joked, as he stood in front of the screen, introducing the movie at the New York Film Festival.
It was here, in 2012, where the celebrated filmmaker debuted “Life of Pi” at Alice Tully Hall, the first stop on the road to 11 Oscars nominations and his second win for best director. But on Friday, the rollout of his new movie was considerably less majestic. Instead of a super-sized gala in Lincoln Center, ticket holders were ushered into a cramped space in the back of the nearby AMC Theatre chain.
This wasn’t a mistake. The venue had to be specially outfitted by Sony Pictures to project “Billy Lynn” the way it was intended to be seen: shot in 120 frames-per-second, 4K resolution and in 3D. The effect is that the screen is crisper than the world’s best Mac commercial. Even “Avatar” didn’t look quite as stunning as “Billy Lynn,” which has been a question mark for awards season watchers until now. Will it be a big contender? The short answer is probably not.
The reaction from that first screening was decidedly mixed–with comments ranging from “It was flat” to “Nothing happened.” Part of the blame lies on the source material. “Billy Lynn” is based on a 2012 novel that might bite off too much. The story is told in flashbacks, set partly at a Dallas Cowboys football game, where the soldiers are forced to assemble onstage during a halftime show performance by Destiny’s Child (not played by actual members of Destiny’s Child). It’s kind of weird that a a movie that prides itself on visual perfection–you can practically see all the actors’ pores–also manages to feature a fake Beyonce (shot from the back of her head, a la “The Patty Duke Show”).
Lee has always been one of Hollywood’s best when it comes to casting, and at least “Billy Lynn” continues that tradition. Much of the story’s weight rests on newcomer Joe Alwyn, who takes on the title role. As a freshly crowned war hero, his Texas drawl is so convincing that the audience gasped when Alwyn revealed at the Q&A that he’s British. But the Oscars rarely recognize subtle breakouts—think of Bel Powley in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” or Felicity Jones in “Like Crazy.” The rest of the large, if sometimes scattered, ensemble includes Steve Martin (as the wealthy owner of the football team), Chris Tucker (channeling his “Rush Hour” character to play a brash Hollywood agent), Vin Diesel (as a beloved sergeant), Garrett Hedlund (as one of the soldiers) and Kristen Stewart (as Lynn’s sister).
But as good as some of these actors are, I’m still not convinced that any of the performances will stand out when it comes time to fill out Oscar ballots. For the Academy Awards (or even the Golden Globes), “Billy Lynn” might not factor into the top categories because of its uneven pacing. The scenes set in the football stadium sometimes feel like a never-ending Thanksgiving episode of “Friends,” while the ones on the battlefield are significantly better (and make better use of the visuals). For that reason, Lee probably won’t be receiving another best director nomination, and the movie is likely to sit out of the best picture race too. (The closest sibling I can think of is last year’s “The Walk,” which never got any gold.)
As for below-the-line categories, “Billy Lynn” might be more competitive there. It could factor in fields like visual effects and cinematography–not to mention sound editing and mixing for the explosive war montages. But that will only happen if Academy voters are able to see the movie, and right now, only a few screens across the nation are equipped to project “Billy Lynn” in all its technological glory. I also have no idea how the movie will play on a screener. And if that’s how Oscar voters see it, will it even get the technical props?
The lukewarm reception ends New York Film Festival on a anti-climatic note. The fall showcase has become a good launching pad for Oscars fare, from “Captain Phillips” to “Gone Girl.” But this year, many of the great films playing (such as “Moonlight,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “Jackie”) had debuted at other festivals. For 2016, NYFF’s biggest contribution to the Oscars might end up being “20th Century Women,” which puts Annette Bening back in the best actress race.