Score: 3 stars *** out of 4 ****
If you put together a list of the best war movies ever made, “The Yellow Birds” probably wouldn’t make the top 100, however if limiting such a list to the Iraq War, it would easily make the top 10. There have been well over 100 movies about the Iraq War and for every “American Sniper,” “Meagan Leavey,” and “The Hurt Locker” there’s five of “Green Zone,” “Redacted,” or “In the Valley of Elah.”
Based on the 2012 debut novel of the same name by former soldier Kevin Powers, “The Yellow Birds” will likely strike some viewers as tedious, uneventful, and structurally unfocused, which is understandable. War itself is tedious and the massive amounts of down time are only infrequently interrupted with bursts of sheer terror. “The Yellow Birds” works so well because of its minimal use of flash, action, and hyper-editing so when the actual horror of battle is shown it is all the more visceral and shocking.
The “structurally unfocused” thing will be claimed by those who get confused with films presented in non-linear, out-of-sequence style narrative (“Pulp Fiction,” “The Usual Suspects,” and even “The Godfather Part II” for example). Admittedly, director Alexandre Moors (“Blue Caprice”) and screenwriter David Lowery (“A Ghost Story”) go a little heavy on the back-and-forth but once you get used to their rhythm and the pace, what starts out as mere drama is transformed into a vexing thriller.
Seen recently as the title character in the underwhelming “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” Alden Ehrenreich stars as Barton, a small town guy who is not terribly bright or charismatic. At basic training Barton makes friends with the similar Daniel (Ty Sheridan – “Mud,” “Joe”) and they form a friendship not so much out of fondness but more because the other soldiers are smarter and more outgoing. This is not lost on Sgt. Sterling (Jack Huston), a tough-love type who initially shows them minimal discipline.
When set “in country” in Iraq, the personalities and motives of the three men change drastically. After two traumatic and harrowing events, Sterling starts becoming unglued suggesting he might not be as fit for command as originally thought. Due in part to their shared lack of assertion and pure fear, Barton and Daniel also begin to wilt under the pressure of battle which first brings them closer and then further apart.
The third setting takes place stateside before and after the service of all three men has ended and puts the emphasis on Amy (Toni Colette) and Maureen (co-producer Jennifer Aniston), Barton and Daniel’s mothers. It is during these scenes where the movie earns its keep and separates itself from virtually every other war movie.
Seldom do we see the ripple effects of war after soldiers return home. This was addressed to some degree in “The Hurt Locker,” Meagan Leavey,” and at points in “Saving Private Ryan” but here it becomes the focal point of the entire movie. Few people outside of service families recognize the often brutal toll levied on the relatives and close friends of soldiers. Even after making it home intact, the aftershocks continue and often become harder to deal with than dodging bombs and bullets.
Not all, but most of the great war films (“Apocalypse Now,” “Dunkirk,” “Paths of Glory,” “Patton,” “Ran”) never address these and other thorny issues taking place when fighting men and women return home. This is this exactly why many viewers (and critics for that matter) will misunderstand the points “The Yellow Birds” is trying to make. It’s not what we’ve come to expect from traditional war movies and for this reason alone it should become required viewing not only for fans of this genre but by any and all young people considering going into the service. It’s not for everyone.
Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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