Release Date(s)2016 (February 14, 2017)
Studio(s)Studio 8/Bona Film Group/TriStar Pictures (Sony)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: B-
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a strange film. It’s essentially an experiment by director Ang Lee in digital filmmaking at 120 frames per second, but it’s a wildly uneven one and is only partially successful. Based on the book by Ben Fountain, the film follows U.S Army Specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), his Sergeant (Garrett Hedlund), and the members of 2nd Squad (quickly branded “the Bravos” by the news media). The squad has been sent by the Pentagon on a PR tour of Dallas, Texas after they find themselves in a firefight in Iraq that ends in the death of their commanding officer, Staff Sergeant Virgil “Shroom” Breem (Vin Diesel), but only after Lynn’s heroic attempt save him is caught on video. During the tour, Billy gets a brief visit home with his family, including his sister (Kristen Stewart), who wants him to seek a medical discharge to keep from having to go back to Iraq. The squad next attends Shroom’s funeral and finally find themselves the guests of honor at a Thanksgiving Day pro football game, where they’re meant to participate in the halftime show. The Dallas team’s owner (played by Steve Martin) is also more than happy to show off the squad to his wealthy friends and the media. Through all of this, the squad is shepherded around by a fast talking producer (Chris Tucker) who’s trying to sell their movie rights to Hollywood. But the main story depicts Lynn and his fellow soldiers’ efforts to make sense of the disconnect of finding yourself in combat one day, then back home as part of a football halftime show the next.
While the original novel is satirical, Lee’s film adaptation plays everything straight, exploiting the psychological conflict of its characters to comment on the war in Iraq, the American home reaction, and the difficult situation our service men and women find themselves in. This choice is, in theory, enhanced by the decision to shoot the film digitally with Sony’s CineAlta F65 cameras in native 4K resolution (and 3D) and at a high speed 120 frames per second. Whereas shooting on photochemical film, or at least processing digital footage to have the texture of photochemical film, lends a certain remove to the image, 4K/120 fps renders an immediacy to the image that we generally associate with video and live broadcasts. Combined here with High Dynamic Range, the result is extraordinary image depth, greater immersion, and an overload of incredibly-nuanced fine detail. As a practical matter, you’re instantly drawn into the characters’ faces and eyes, which appear truly life-like. That, in turn, increases the emotional connection you have with the characters, all of which is perfectly in keeping with a film that relies upon your ability to read the internal conflicts of these characters. This effect also greatly enhances the film’s combat sequences. Short of actually finding yourself in combat, or real combat training, I can’t imagine a more realistic simulation of what it must be like than this. The heightened intensity of 120 fps is similar to the kind of magnified sensory awareness you experience when your body is pumping with adrenalin. Colors are bolder, details are sharper. It also works to enhance quiet moments too: There’s a great scene when Specialist Lynn and Sergeant Breem are sitting in the shade under a tree in Iraq, just cleaning their guns and talking, and everything about the moment is more powerful because of the heightened reality of 120 fps.
Despite this, when Lynn and his squad are back home, the heightened reality of 120 fps makes everything that isn’t real in the film seem just that much more false... and that’s a real problem. Anyone who’s ever been to a professional football game knows what the energy of that atmosphere feels like, but as captured here in 120 fps, the whole exercise feels oddly lifeless. It doesn’t help that the football teams aren’t real; while the book depicts a Dallas Cowboys NFL Thanksgiving home game, the film features a fictional team with obvious Dallas Cowboys colors and a simple “D” logo. When you expect team owner Jerry Jones to show up, what you get instead is Steve Martin with a Texas drawl. Then there’s the actual halftime show. While it’s mounted with great credibility, by people who actually produce such shows for the NFL and the Olympics, Lynn and his squad are meant to serve as the backdrop for a performance by Destiny’s Child. Except it’s not actually Destiny’s Child, but lookalikes that you only see from behind. This is followed by a weird scuffle between the squad and a bunch of roadies for reasons that make no sense at all. All of these things completely undermine the sense of reality created by the use of 120 fps, and the result is a weird tonal misfire; most of these scenes just don’t work as intended.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray in full native 4K, at the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio and with High Dynamic Range, but at the format’s maximum frame rate of 60 fps. Obviously, I’ve already described the effect of that high frame rate above. What you need to know about the image quality here is that this disc is easily the best looking 4K presentation available on this format to date. Detail is exquisite, shadows are deep and detailed, colors are bold and lifelike, with an absolutely incredible range of subtle hues and shadings visible – particularly in the characters’ faces. There’s not much point in my continuing to try and describe it. This is just a title that every self-respecting fan of 4K UHD needs to get their hands on – even if you hate the film itself – just so you can show off your hardware. I know there are those who don’t like the high frame rate effect in the cinema. My personal feeling is that high frame rate has its place if handled correctly. But as a simple visual experience in your home theater, this image is jaw dropping. You really have to see it for yourself to appreciate it.
The 4K disc includes an English 7.1 Dolby Atmos primary soundtrack, with additional audio options that include English and French Descriptive Audio, and French, Portuguese, and Thai 5.1 Dolby Digital. The Atmos mix is a perfect match for the visuals, rendering a completely natural soundscape. Clarity is near perfect, with smooth and effortless panning, and terrific atmospheric fill from the surround channels, by turns quiet and restrained or bombastic and aggressive. The soundfield is wide across the front, roomy all around, and the height channels are employed to good effect during the film’s two main set piece sequences. There’s a moment during the football game when Lynn gets a phone call and he puts his finger in his ear to hear it better; the whole tonal quality of the mix shifts instantly. During the halftime show itself, marching band drums are crisp and tight, the sound of crashing cymbals lingers in the air. In the combat scenes, you can hear the patter of M4 fire from every direction, some of it close and some of it more distant. Grenade and shoulder-fired AT4 rounds explode front and center, then you hear the blasts echo in the rear channels an instant later. This mix is impressive as hell. Note that subtitles are available in English, English SDH, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), French, Indonesian, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai.
In terms of bonus content, the 4K disc includes the film itself, along with an exclusive featurette that’s also presented in full 4K:
- Technology As Art: Changing the Language of Cinema (5:25)
The package includes the film on separate Blu-ray 3D and regular Blu-ray discs as well. The latter offers these additional bonus features in 1080p HD:
- Deleted Scenes (6 scenes – 10:18 in all)
- Into Battle and Onto the Field: Stepping Inside Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (9:21)
- Assembling a Cast (11:29)
- Recreating the Halftime Show (6:27)
- The Brotherhood of Combat (4:24)
A couple of the deleted scenes are okay, including an interesting moment when a woman in the stadium audience asks Lynn how he’s doing – the only reason I can think of that it was cut is that it’s too on the nose. Unfortunately, the featurettes all have a glossy, EPK-style, so you’re not going to get a lot of in-depth information or insight. The most interesting aspects of the film – the high frame rate cinematography and the filming of the combat footage – get just five minutes each. I would really have liked an audio commentary with Lee and cinematographer John Toll talking about the use of 120 fps and how it impacted the various scenes, but such is not to be. I do give Sony a good deal of credit for including the Blu-ray 3D version of the film in this package. Though I would never choose to watch that over the stunning 4K presentation, it is, at least, a different kind of enhanced immersion. Finally, you get the usual Digital Copy code on a paper insert.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has flashes of greatness, moments when you feel powerfully drawn into its story and emotions, but they’re surrounded by a film that feels oddly staged and flat. Still, if you’re any kind of A/V enthusiast, this 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release offers a unique and reference-level experience – particularly visually – that is simply not to be missed.
- Bill Hunt