Movie Review – The Yellow Birds
The title comes from a song lyric that soldiers chant in unison during hikes or group runs. However, the title reminds me of a reference in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) where soldiers are called “canaries,” which are mostly yellow birds that are in some cases used as sacrifices, innocent sacrifices, put in dangerous situations, specifically to die. Canaries in coal mines are the cliché example. Coal mining is dirty work that does result in something useful, but the War in Iraq, which began in 2003 and is the backdrop of this movie, arguably didn’t result in anything useful. The War in Iraq was a needless war and this movie, based on a novel by Kevin Powers, a veteran from 2004 to 2005, reflects that needlessness and how that needlessness might affect the so-called canaries. Whatever Powers was trying to explore about Iraq is mostly lost in translation in screenwriter David Lowery’s pass, which could be applicable to any war in any time period and is more about the disillusionment of two or three, very young men sent to combat.
At the same time, the film cuts back-and-forth to what soldiers experience when they return home and have to deal with the aftermath or even the psychical scars of being in active gunfire or subject to intense enemy attacks. Those mental scars can lead to issues like homelessness and suicide, and this movie does briefly address that. Yet, we’ve seen several films in that vein since the Iraq War began. The recent Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) and Thank You For Your Service (2017) hit all the same beats of this movie, but in more on-the-nose and bolder or more underlined ways. Here, director Alexandre Moors (Blue Caprice) does have a tact similar to Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, another Iraq War movie, but Moors also has a poetic nature and sensibility that makes this film more subtle and more beautiful in various respects.
Despite Moors’ direction, due to the same beats as other modern-day war movies, there was nothing that made me interested in this film more than the cast that Moors has assembled. The movie is divided into two, the overseas war and the American home-front. The American home-front is populated with stars and great, adult actors like Jennifer Aniston, Toni Collette, Jason Patric and Lee Tergesen. The presence of those names is worth giving the film a look, but what Moors did was also greatly cast the overseas part and the young men who are the soldiers in question here. By luck or chance, Moors cast two young actors who are currently in two of the biggest movies of 2018.
Alden Ehrenreich stars as Brandon Bartle, a 20-year-old soldier from Virginia. He’s a guy who’s sleepwalking through life in more ways than one. He comes from an impoverished background, raised by a single mom. He probably didn’t do well in school and has no prospects on going to college or pursuing any career with any kind of secondary education. He admittedly has no life plan and joined the army in his words “just cause.” Brandon also literally drifts into unconsciousness or into slumber, even while walking. He’s possibly narcoleptic.
Tye Sheridan co-stars as Daniel Murphy, a 18-year-old soldier also from Virginia, but it’s clear that he comes from an economically or financially better part of town. His parents aren’t wealthy but they are better off and if nothing else, they’re still together. As such, Daniel has a plan for his life. He wants to go to college and pursue a career. He doesn’t drift in that sense. He is a bit shy though.
In terms of the two biggest films of 2018, Ehrenreich was the titular character of Solo: A Star Wars Story, which is currently the sixth, highest-grossing movie of the year at $213 million. Sheridan was the titular character of Ready Player One, which is currently the twelfth, highest-grossing movie of the year at $137 million. Prior to this, both guys started acting as teenagers and have both been involved with critically acclaimed films and legendary directors who have helped both hone their crafts, priming them as two of the best within their age-group. Bringing the two together, even briefly here, is electric.
However, the movie is more of Ehrenreich’s vehicle. He does a better job of actors in similar roles of portraying the hurt, the fear and anger that soldiers experience, not just in the heat and insanity of battle but also during the cold and calm of the home-front. There’s also the feeling of brotherhood and bonding that many guys feel strongly than to actual family members. As such, the men can make decisions that might not seem right. Having to live with those decisions can be tough and that’s what Ehrenreich conveys here. It helps that Ehrenreich has a great face. His turn in Solo: A Star Wars Story didn’t do much to convince the masses of his abilities, but he is a talent the likes of which should be nominated for awards, if not for this role, than hopefully soon.
Rated R for war violence, some grisly images, sexual material and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.
Available on DVD and VOD.