In the past decade and a half, there’s been an inescapable wave of cookie-cutter Iraq war movies, many of which simply rehashing the tonal exploits of the influx of Vietnam-era cinema not all that long ago. Casual disciples of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket hit many of the same familiar notes, half-heartedly exploring the atrocities of war, the horrible acts it forces soldiers to commit, and the harrowing toll it takes on troops returning home from the battlefield. It is said that “Good artists copy; great artists steal,” but director Alexandre Moors (Blue Caprice, Cruel Summer) takes the quotation even one step further with The Yellow Birds, by simply regurgitating clichéd plot beats onto the screen.
The film opens with Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), a 21-year-old veteran telling his version of an open criminal investigation. We see this world through his eyes, and he warns the viewer early on that his memories are jumbled, so the film is told in nonlinear strokes, bouncing between his time in basic training, his time in the field, and his rocky transition to civilian life back home in Virginia. A fellow member of his outfit, the fresh-faced rookie Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan), is missing, presumed dead, and it becomes immediately evident that Bartle knows more than he’s letting on.
“A fellow member of his outfit, the fresh-faced rookie…missing, presumed dead, and…evident that Bartle knows more than he’s letting on…”
It’s difficult to believe that this script was penned by David Lowery, whose films such as A Ghost Story have felt so unique in the past. The Yellow Birds reads like a slapdash attempt to meet a forgotten deadline. The source material, a 2012 novel written by combat veteran Kevin Powers, undoubtedly offers more insights into the minds of its characters and boasts the grace and authenticity of someone who’s been plagued by the aftermath of the burden of military service. Its big screen adaptation, however, gives each of its players only one defining characteristic, hindering them from reaching anything resembling genuine human emotion.