Birdy (1984)

21 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a beautiful movie surrounding Alan Parker’s fantasy-drama “Birdy,” and it just needs to be found. But as it is, it’s still intriguing, strange, and surprisingly moving, given its subject matter. It’s about two friends from South Philadelphia who have served in the Vietnam War—one of them, Al (Nicolas Cage), is called to a mental institution to try and reach his best friend, nicknamed “Birdy” (Matthew Modine), who is trapped inside of his own mind. If Birdy is proven mentally unstable, he will be taken away.

There’s nothing new to be said about the Vietnam War here, but that isn’t important. What is important is the friendship between these two friends who wind up serving in it. They both arrive back, scarred—one physically (Al has disfigured his face, so he keeps bandages covering most of it), the other mentally. Most of their story is told in flashback sequences as we see what led to this. The boys grew up in South Philadelphia. Al is a smooth guy with self-confidence and a natural ability to pick up women. Birdy is a different story—he’s an oddball who is weirdly fascinated with birds and dreams of flying himself. He has a pet canary, he has a pigeon suit to try and capture pigeons (while hanging upside down from elevated tracks), creates an ornithopter (a small flying device), and even some homemade wings to try out in hopes of flying.

Al and Birdy become great friends, as we see in the flashbacks. Although, they become somewhat separated by their pursuits for different things—for Al, it’s more women; for Birdy, it’s a further obsession with flying. But they’re still good friends with each other and share some unique adventures together.

In the present time, however, Birdy has apparently been pushed over the edge, presumably because of his experience in the war. He’s at the point where he actually thinks he’s a caged bird, with his cell as his cage. He looks sideways, looks longingly at the window to see birds fly free, has his head cocked to the side, and doesn’t even say a word. Al is trying to reach him by making him remember the good times they had together and make sure he’s not crazy, but he is not sure what he’s thinking, or even if he’s thinking.

“Birdy” is successful in its storytelling, as it doesn’t tell the story in chronological order, rather than let us figure out for ourselves in what order these events—past and present—happened so we can understand a certain thing about the other. It’s fascinating that way. We also get some deeply effective moments that go deep into Birdy’s perception. We can understand how much he wants to fly, and notice his “transformation” as it continues to develop. We realize his love for birds, as well as his hopes of being free to fly out of this miserable world he lives in, what with a difficult mother and other people (including a girl Al pushes him into dating) calling him weird. This Birdy is quite a terrific character, and played so well by Matthew Modine. I’m surprised his performance wasn’t nominated for an Oscar—I really think it’s an Oscar-caliber performance.

I get the feeling there was a lot more to “Birdy” than what was ultimately released to cinemas and home media. There are many parts of the movie that either feel rushed or not developed at all. For example, in an early flashback scene showing when the two boys first meet, it’s a misunderstanding and then a bit of confusion. Then, we get a montage of the two boys hanging out together, as if all of a sudden, they’re just best friends now. We never saw what made them really connect with each other in the first place. So in that way it is somewhat hard to believe that Al would hang out with Birdy all this time, despite his odd obsession with birds and flying. I also could have used more of Al teaching Birdy to be more sociable in high school. And I also would have loved to see how these two reacted to serving in Vietnam—we only get just a few brief scenes, and that’s not particularly good enough. And the ending is just too ambiguous—it was as if I was reliving my thoughts on the anticlimactic ending for “An American Werewolf in London.” What I’m saying is I could have used a lot more of this material, and that’s saying something, especially considering that this movie is two hours long. I would have watched an extra half-hour if they had something to deliver.

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