There’s no other genre that cements the American identity quite like the war film.
There’s no other genre that cements the American identity quite like the war film. Where Westerns once portrayed the idealistic country we imagined ourselves to have, the war drama has shown us both the sentimental fantasy and the brutal realities, all the while charting how we deal with the aftermath and, more importantly, the men and women who return home. The war genre has clearly defined beats and the sheer number of movies released nowadays leads to a certain amount of tedium every time a new one comes down the pike. Alexandre Moors’ The Yellow Birds shares several commonalities with the 2005 Jake Gyllenhaal drama Jarhead, as well as HBO’s 2008 miniseries “Generation Kill,” but where those works showed the daily aspects of war and soldiers’ attempts to stay sane, The Yellow Birds doesn’t say much of anything outside of the mundane. The trio of young men at its center are compelling enough, but the entire ordeal feels like a mash-up of countless other movies.
Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan) are paired up as they prep to do a tour in Iraq. Bartle is a soldier who joined up because of his lack of direction; Murphy because it was expected of him. The two become close with their sergeant, Sterling (Jack Huston), but as the daily grind of war starts affecting them, it leads to repercussions none of them could have foreseen.
The Yellow Birds falls firmly into the dour and sad category of films like American Sniper, where a palette of grimdark browns and grays are meant to mimic the internal darkness of our main characters’ souls. The script, credited to a bizarre collaboration of David Lowery and R.F.I. Porto, is filled with lines that sound poetic, if not perfectly suited for a trailer: “War didn’t give us anything. It took;” “You die by the secrets you keep.” These moments have weight, but they always feel pendulous and foreboding, as if it’s a Gothic horror film and not an Iraq war drama. The film is connected through tenuous flashback devices—Bartle being asked about “his girl” before flashing back to being with her, or Bartle standing in the water in the midst of a suicide attempt. These flashbacks are so subtle that you might be confused by the film’s timeline on occasion, but they mostly cover familiar ground.
However, unlike other war movies that take an “America, F yeah!” POV, The Yellow Birds doesn’t offer any particular perspective. The Americans are the central characters, and some fall into Call of Duty mode while others don’t. However, we aren’t given any look at the Iraqi people short of their corpses, which doesn’t do much to diminish the “America first” feeling of everything. We’re meant to see the Iraqis as faceless terrorists or people easily dispatched for selfish ends. On the one hand, this is your stereotypical “damaged veteran” story, with Bartle and Murphy dealing with the crushing horrors of watching people die in front of them. Bartle returns home to his mother (played Toni Collette in a waste of about three scenes), where he generally stays in bed, threatens her and is then apparently cleansed by revealing his secrets at the end. The other veterans are all on various levels of the suicide-watch spectrum with nothing in between.
This focus on death is furthered by the film’s other plot thread, a mystery involving Murphy, who has apparently gone missing. Though not unique, the idea of solving a crime through the bureaucratic channels of war could have yielded a compelling story if the focus was on Murphy’s mom, Maureen (Jennifer Aniston). Instead, the narrative seems ill-formed and secondary with Jason Patric’s Captain Anderson popping up like Bartle’s conscience as opposed to a flesh-and-blood character. In fact, most of the characters feel like archetypes as opposed to people, particularly the women. A crush of Murphy’s is a nameless nurse whose death acts as a fridging to alter Murphy’s personality; Collette’s Amy is neglected and treated poorly by her son, even before Bartle returns from war; and Aniston’s Maureen is the kind-hearted, perfect representation of motherhood whose personality is apparently so fragile Murphy is willing to make a life-altering decision for her without thinking of how she’ll feel. Maureen’s character is treated the worst because the resolution of her son’s story makes little sense.
The trio of male leads keep the film from becoming a complete snoozefest. A pre-Solo Ehrenreich continues to prove he is capable of giving a great performance, and his Bartle can be fun and a good companion. His scenes opposite Sheridan’s Murphy show off the “brothers in arms” spirit that war movies are known for. Sheridan conveys the haunting PTSD that many soldiers walk away with. The slow deterioration of his personality from bright-eyed boy to hollow shell sticks with you. Huston does have trouble with the Southern twang he’s using for Sterling—a reminder that not every soldier needs to be Southern in film—but he also makes the most of his role as the boys’ one source of shelter and protection. The way his plotline resolves itself is as nonsensical as the rest of the mystery, but Huston delivers.
The Yellow Birds is a rote glimpse into the lives of soldiers, though that glimpse has already been so thoroughly elaborated on in so many other films that it’s already in full view. The acting works, but the movie needed to stick with a unique narrative instead of finding new methods to deliver the same old message.