Many movies, fiction and non-fiction, have been made about the second Iraq war. The best one was, oddly enough, a documentary: 2007’s No End In Sight. As far as fiction goes, though, none really “got” the war. Maybe they all came out too early and the war needed a little more digesting and thought, but the lack of a thoroughly made and informative depiction has yet to emerge.
Of course, one can say that none captured the tension and confusion of the war the way Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker did back in 2009. However, the film never mentioned the word “Iraq” and chose to not disclose its setting. Bigelow’s effort noted that “war is a drug,” and in fact its protagonist had such a rush at defusing bombs that he rather be shipped off to the middle East than spend any time with his own family.
Unlike The Hurt Locker‘s main protagonist, the soldiers at the core of Alexandre Moors’ The Yellow Birds want to get the hell out of there. They hate the war, and have seen things that have defaced their moral compass. The two soldiers the film focuses on, Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), 20 years old, and Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan), the 18-year-old recruit he ends up taking care of, are bruised and battered by never-ending combat that seems to worsen by the day. They see detached limbs on the streets every day, watch their fellow army men killed in front of them and hallucinate out of the sheer shock of the warzone. Although this could make for gripping cinema, Moors instead sucks out any of the tension of artful vision that should have appeared on-screen.
Ehrenreich, the next Han Solo and a star-in-the-making, does not deliver on the promise he playfully displayed in the Coens’ Hail, Caesar! His Brandon is a Virginia drifter that enlists to the frontlines because, well, his life is a never-ending list of mediocrities and banalities that pummel him down to sheer, mentally numbing pain. In flashbacks we even see him get lured by the hot girl in the block and, yet, his reaction is that of un-fulfilment and numbness.
Brandon takes Murphy under his wing, but their war experience is one gruelling shock after another. Only one of them returns home from overseas and that’s Brandon, Murphy, on the other hand, has gone missing, much to the evident concern of his mother (an effective Jennifer Aniston) who want answers and knows someone is hiding something.
What’s happened to him? Why is Brandon behaving so suspiciously since his return? Why doesn’t he want to answer any of the questions being asked by authorities? It’s only in the film’s final act that he opens up to Murphy’s mother, in a scene that is supposed to be revelatory, but ends up being oddly dull and infuriating.
If Sheridan is well-cast and believable in the role of Murphy, the same can’t be said of Ehrenreich, who can’t quite pull it off. His boyish good looks and skinny physique are a bad fit for a role that was written with toughness, machoism and grit in mind. Ehrenreich comes off like a boy playing in a man’s game.
For a film that has such an intriguing premise at its core, The Yellow Birds seems to drag due to Moor’s abrupt tempo changes and flat visual style. The editing isn’t any better, either, as it never truly finds a flow to ride on and feels chaotic and messily put together. Moor, whose 2013 debut, Blue Caprice, had us hoping for something special here, seems to have picked the wrong vehicle for his sophomore effort. Everything that made that aforementioned film such a tense, tight-nit story has completely evaporated in The Yellow Birds.