Movie Review: The Yellow Birds (2017)

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Striving to do justice to Iraq veteran Kevin Powers' eponymous 2012 award-winning novel, Blue Caprice director Alexandre Moors anchors his adaptation of The Yellow Birds with lyrical Thin Red Line style voice-over narration and scenes that – like a river – sway back and forth in time.

A solidly made if ultimately underwhelming war picture, although it's elevated by an impressive ensemble of actors, Birds fails to connect us in any real way to a majority of the young soldiers we follow from boot camp into Iraq over the course of the film.

The Achilles Heel of the genre, while at least we get a better sense of the characters than we did in Black Hawk Down –thanks largely in part due to the decision to bring the mothers of our two leads (played by Jennifer Aniston and Toni Collette) into the narrative – just when we begin to bond with the main characters in The Yellow Birds, we unexpectedly move on.

And while these segues provide a very real, stylistic link to the unpredictability of life during wartime, when you combine the narrative shortcomings with the film's mere ninety-five minute running time, it's easy to wonder how much material was left on the cutting room floor or not shot at all due to budget and/or time constraints.

Originally developed by Pete's Dragon writer/director David Lowery who was forced to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, when he first climbed aboard Birds as a replacement director, Moors found himself working not only from a novel but also the script and vision of someone else.

Hoping to remedy that, he hired his Blue Caprice writer R.F.I. Porto to revise Yellow's script, which led to more delays and cast changes. And while as a experienced writer, director, and editor in his own right, Moors was able to find his groove, certain scenes in the film feel muddled enough that you get the impression that they might have worked better in – if not a different movie altogether – than at least a different version of the script or final cut.

Repeatedly moving from past to present throughout to find the soldiers pre-war, in war, and post-war, the film follows the experiences of eighteen year old Daniel Murphy and twenty year old John Bartle (played by Tye Sheridan and Alden Ehrenreich) who become fast friends in boot camp before they're quickly deployed overseas.

And although we know what happens to one of the two characters due to an ill-advised opening narration that must've worked much better in Kevin Powers' novel than it does here, more than just filmic CliffsNotes, The Yellow Birds is still a beautifully rendered and haunting portrait of the way that war changes the men and women who answer the call.

Not nearly as impactful or as cohesive as it wants to be however, unfortunately aside from Murphy, Bartle, and their mothers, the other characters are shortchanged throughout.

At its best when it opts for an understated approach as opposed to a late-introduced, heavy handed baptismal motif that immediately pulls you out of the movie, Birds is nonetheless average overall.

Breaking our heart in two memorable sequences, particularly by way of a bittersweet dance scene which bookends the work, although it doesn't soar for very long, just like real birds, Moors' Yellow Birds dazzles more in the quiet moments than it does during war.

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