A lot to love, but ultimately a missed opportunity.
The Yellow Birds is one of the more puzzling films I’ve seen all year. Not because of some convoluted plot or unconventional cinematography, which might have been interesting given the genre. No, my confusion comes from the film’s uneven qualities. Somehow the film provides a uniquely realistic look at the effects of war while the plot does its best to cloud our view.
Based on Kevin Powers’ novel of the same name, The Yellow Birds follows the lives of two soldiers deployed in Iraq. At first, Bartle and Murph (played by Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan, respectively) go through the usual motions. Both are naïve about what’s going on, I assume because they didn’t actually expect to fight anyone. Bartle, the older of the two, seemingly enlisted because he has nothing else going for him; he’s a bit aimless to say the least. He’s more pessimistic than Murph, who sees his enlistment as an exciting stop before landing a future job or going to college. As things progress and they engage with enemies, their differences become more apparent. They will both struggle to make sense of the fighting and their role in it, their lives forever changed by their harrowing experiences.
I don’t believe director Alexandre Moors and writer R.F.I. Porto wanted to create something akin to Full Metal Jacket. That said, they still trudged through the same trenches made popular by films of that ilk. The resulting sense of “been there, done that” could certainly sour one’s opinion of The Yellow Birds, if not for its somber depiction of war. Gone are the bombastic displays of heroism, hard-as-nails lieutenants, and embellished events. The explosions are kept to a minimum and there aren’t any up-close shots of men being riddled with bullets. Yellow Birds feels mundane even when compared to the more modest war films – and by modest, I mean the movies that aren’t looking to entertain or glorify America’s historical involvement in a given conflict. Devoid of a political stance, the story is centered on survival before and after deployment.
So, what we get are the familiar wartime settings and events but with the focus shifted to the soldiers in a believable way; less exciting and more ordinary, which appears to be the underlying theme. To show that the horrible aspects of war are normal for a soldier who has been through it. Their stories don’t need to be exaggerated because what they really go through is enough to warrant our admiration, empathy and support.
While this is all well and good, the plot doesn’t keep up with this theme. For some reason, a mystery of sorts is introduced that nearly ruins the movie. Watching these damaged soldiers endure hardships while trying to maintain a sense of normalcy with their families made for an engrossing film. That facet is eventually overshadowed by this mystery, pulling the focus away from the main characters. Instead of diving into the trauma of the present, we’re meant to piece together what happened to so and so via flashbacks. This portion drags down the pace as it slowly creeps to a predictable outcome; you won’t know exactly what happened before the reveal, but you won’t be shocked either. It’s like the writers were concerned that their story wouldn’t been interesting without a big moment, a need to replicate the grandeur of any other war-glorifying film, which is a far cry from the initial approach.
It’s a shame because the film mostly works. The acting is great. Toni Collette and Jennifer Aniston are convincing as the mothers of Bartle and Murph, while Ehrenreich steals the show whenever possible. Tye Sheridan’s portrayal of Murph, though not original, warrants praise as well. Cinematographer Daniel Landin delivered beautiful shots, regardless of how dire things were on screen. This was especially true in the final moments, thanks to a great location and a genius use of lighting and color. Basically, there was a lot to love. If only the overall plot had kept the pace and focus it started with, Alexandre Moors might have had a genre-defining film on his hands.
The Yellow Birds is now playing in theaters and On Demand.