The Yellow Birds is a hard movie for me to review, and it’s not just because it’s a war movie, one of my least favorite genres. Instead, it’s because it’s so generic. It’s perfectly fine; in fact, I’d tell people it’s a pretty good movie. However, I’m hard pressed to explain what qualities make it so. And, on the other hand, I don’t find anything particularly wrong with it.
It’s based on the award-winning 2012 novel of the same name by Iraq veteran, Kevin Powers. I haven’t read it, but the synopsis indicates that its screen adaptation focuses on only one particular aspect of the book. This would be the relationship between two young soldiers, as one befriends the other and promises his mother that he won’t let anything bad happen to him.
That’s a hard promise to keep, especially during war. The movie turns the disappearance of Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan, Ready Player One) into a mystery revealed in small pieces through flashbacks, explained to us only when his friend, Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich, Solo: A Star Wars Story), tells Daniel’s mother, Maureen (Jennifer Aniston), what happened.
I guess one of my problems with The Yellow Birds is that, not really understanding the “rules” of war, I didn’t comprehend why the cause of his disappearance was a big enough deal that Brandon would be arrested when he returned home and that Sergeant Sterling (Jack Huston) would have a mental breakdown.
The screenplay was originally written by David Lowery (A Ghost Story). I imagine his version of the story would be something special. But he was unable to see the project to fruition and the script was revised by R.F.I. Porto when director Alexandre Moors was hired to take over. Perhaps it’s biggest problem is the abrupt ending, leaving us with more questions than answers.
The young leads are good. In a way, Ehrenreich shows more personality as Brandon Bartle than he did as Han Solo. It’s a different type of role, for sure, but he’s got the dramatic chops for it. Likewise, Tye Sheridan seems more suited for this type of character than for the character of a young video gamer inspiring a rebellion in a post-apocalyptic virtual world.
The Yellow Birds had its premiere at Sundance in 2017 and was nominated for “Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic.” It (and 15 other in the competition) lost to I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, but it won the “U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematography” (Daniel Landin). Again, this indicates it’s not a bad movie… it’s just not a great one.