The Yellow Birds begins with a tranquil image of flowing water, followed by a graceful camera pan over American troops marching cautiously over a war-ravaged Iraqi landscape. It’s an unusually peaceful snapshot of the Iraq war described from an almost Nirvana-like state, lifted from the chaos of war. Alexandre Moors directs this PTSD-drama in a ruptured format, intersplicing moments of wartime trials, postwar trauma and prewar grace in a manner that rejects chronology to achieve something of a finalized collage of the war and its profound effects on the individual.
“The war killed some of us before we knew we were dead” says the opening scene’s narrator Murph (Tye Sheridan), a grunt fresh out of boot camp who is paired with the more battle-hardened Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich). “Killed,” in Murph’s case, doesn’t exactly refer to a traditional casualty of war list. In Murph’s narration death is an abstract notion that apply even to the soldiers (“ghosts” as Murph calls them) who returned, either permanently damaged or irrevocably changed by the war’s psychological toils.
Directed by French filmmaker Alexandre Moors and adapted from a critically successful debut novel by Kevin Powers—a veteran of the Iraq war—The Yellow Birds is a decidedly fictional tale told from a personal, almost-autobiographical perspective. Although Powers received thunderous praise for his lyricism, director Alexandre Moors unfortunately never truly services the author’s melancholic poetry. Even the peacefulness of the opening shot Moors seems to imitate the spiritually removed aspect of Kevin Power’s words, which are at once stark and ambiguous, without ever really achieving the gravity of Powers’ suggestions.
In one sequence, the bombing of Baghdad is interestingly composed of literal archival footage of war and more intimate examination of restless soldiers at the city’s borders, effectively combining plain reality with a more subjective experience. Yet Moors follows up on this bold formal choice with hackneyed ones, at one point even aping Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket as a camera crew moves from soldier to soldier ludicrously asking the shaken troops, “Do you really think this is the most important thing you’ll ever do?” In 2018, the question is designed to make us “moderns” scoff and feel an air of superiority at the soldier’s hopeless crusade. Of course, Moors never allows us to see the point of view of the troops who, in 2003, lack a similar hindsight to him.
When Ehrenreich’s Bartle is eventually questioned by the camera crew he tersely answers “fuckin’ hope not,” though one suspects that this is an abnormal response for a soldier just about to participate in one of his country’s biggest military campaigns. In fact, Moors imbues Ehrenreich’s enlistee with so much antiwar cynicism and unpatriotic detachment I wonder if the director even bothered trying to understand the idealism and misled enthusiasm that makes young men want to enlist in the first place.
The film however never lets us forget why soldiers like Jack Huston’s depraved Dixieland Sergeant Sterling joined the war. In one scene he is even fanatically quoting scripture whilst pouring salt on the Iraqi soil, his own little way of handing out God’s wrath. Any sort of fanatical devotion is a villainy anyone can identify as wrong, its pretty much ingrained in close to every major problem happening in the world today. Though in The Yellow Birds Sterling’s abnormal contempt is never informed by a startling human standpoint, certainly not in the convincing manner that made the angry, racist and trigger-happy enlistees in Generation Kills disturbingly identifiable in our own western culture. The idea of identifying with someone like Sterling is too troubling and unthinkable an idea and would only threaten to make Moors clean-hands, utterly rudimentary antiwar message a slightly more complicated one.
While Sterling is undoubtedly the film’s most over-the-top creation, Tye Sheridan’s Murph is perhaps equally as crude in his design. An enlistee who joins out of a sense of family tradition, his purity and naivety may as well have been made into big target signs on his forehead. It doesn’t help that Sheridan’s wide and teary-eyed performance, sorrowfully lacking in human depth, more closely resembles an abused pack animal about to be putdown.
Occasionally, The Yellow Birds will employ a break in the narrative, some plot disruptions and other ‘unconventional’ means of storytelling, despite that there is something brazenly predictable about the film, and not only in its excessive use of rote war movie clichés. The film establishes itself with several portents which are so heavy-handed that I had easily guessed three major plot points before the film’s midway point. One moment, which actually serves as the film’s premise—where Ehrenreich’s Bartle is forced into promising Murph’s mom (played by Jennifer Aniston) that he will look after her son—spells out a turn of events so obvious that its eventual ‘reveal’ inspires nothing more than just a passing shrug.
It’s almost remarkable how little in common Kevin Powers’ dispossessed soldiers in The Yellow Birds have in common with American Sniper’s controversial war hero Chris Kyle, but in the current trend of streamlined PTSD-weepies in Hollywood we’re seeing their contrasting viewpoints, ideologies and philosophies clumped together into one neat little war movie category. These films essentially win over the mainstream by pushing a safe antiwar message, demonizing “war” while ironically sentimentalizing its main subjects. If The Yellow Birds resembled anything like a departure from this exhausting trend, it’s certainly had something to do with Kevin Powers’ text, whose poetry offered discourse aplenty, but under the crippling and ultimately limiting concern of studios, desperately trying frame Powers’ story under the generally accepted mainstream guideline of today’s war films, even Powers’ boldest and most searing examinations are distilled into safe, inoffensive and palatable antiwar movie fluff.