by Rob Gonsalves
Only in the '80s, I think, could a quietly bizarre film about the friendship of two boys one of whom wants to be a bird be financed, made, and released. Alan Parker's "Birdy," drawn from a 1978 allegorical novel by William Wharton (née Albert Du Aime), is an unusual beast even in this eclectic director's portfolio. It's surprisingly gentle, and offers a performance by nineteen-year-old Nicolas Cage (in only his fifth major screen role) that outshines most of what he's done in the last decade.Cage is Al Columbato, a Vietnam vet whose face was torn up by shrapnel. (Al also has a limp that comes and goes realistically, I suppose, depending on the weather in the scene or whether he's been standing too long. I doubt it's a goof on Cage's part he actually had teeth pulled for the role. You don't do that and then make technical mistakes.) He's stateside at Fort Dix when he gets a call about his boyhood friend Birdy (Matthew Modine), who was also in the shit and came back torn up on the inside. All Birdy does is crouch in his cell at the veterans' mental hospital, cocking his head like, well, a bird.
"Movies don't get more emo. But don't hold that against it."
The narrative flips back and forth between the latter-day scenes, wherein Al tries to get some semblance of human response from Birdy (while a piggish military shrink breathes down his neck awaiting results), and flashback sequences in which the high-school-age Al and Birdy build a fast, strong friendship. At first the bond is based on money: these two Philly kids grew up in the ass end of town, and Al thinks that collecting and selling carrier pigeons (which Birdy also collects) will be like picking cash up off the ground. That doesn't work so well for them, but Al and Birdy stay buddies anyway, developing rapport based on private jokes and their shared disdain for the hellhole they live in. Eventually, though, the boys are separated by Birdy's increasing, almost erotic attachment to his birds, and Al's growing impatience with same.
In other films, Alan Parker has pushed far too hard for the effects he wanted. He likes moments of violence, rage, discord. (He and scripter Oliver Stone were a perfect sadistic match on Midnight Express.) When he has a smaller story, though like Shoot the Moon he calms down, and in Birdy he wisely lets Cage's and Modine's unstable rapport do most of the heavy lifting. Modine, soon to enact perhaps the definitive Vietnam experience in Full Metal Jacket, manages to make the asexual, head-in-the-clouds Birdy appealing even as his obsession with birds and flying deepens into mania. For Cage's part, he's utterly open as Al, fearful but covering it (just barely) with a tough-kid, hound-dog bravado. Cage conveys this mostly with his eyes, always drawn upward in anguish (and when he's bandaged in the hospital scenes his eyes are pretty much all he has). What happened to the actor who did such fearless work in films ranging from this to Vampire's Kiss to Leaving Las Vegas from '84 to '95? And what the hell is he doing in stuff like Ghost Rider?
Parker has a tender touch here (except for that joke ending, which even I find embarrassing, and the overuse of "La Bamba," which isn't even right for the movie's period), but he knows when to pull out the stops when it counts in the blood and napalm of Vietnam, and in the celebrated sequence when Birdy dreams of flight. Birdy was also Peter Gabriel's introduction to film scoring (though he recycled much of the music from his earlier albums; only the use of "Rhythm of the Heat" really dates the soundtrack, since it's been used ad infinitum since this film), and it's impossible to imagine the movie without it. With Gabriel's help, the movie transcends the mundane, as Birdy is also driven to do. And in the quiet, desperate hospital scenes, the score comes close to heartbreaking. Birdy is a downer, all right; there's real desolation in details like the cheerful sign reading "USA Is Proud of Its Soldiers" hanging up in a gym where legless veterans exercise. The whole film is about rising above the muck and violence of the human world. Confronted with Vietnam's heart of darkness, where napalm incinerates people and birds alike, Birdy goes mad and withdraws from life. The question is whether Al's extended hand of friendship is enough to draw him back in.In short, "Birdy" is the kind of film that filled you with woe in high school. (Its source novel is frequently on summer-reading lists.) Even if your teen years are far behind you, though, the movie puts you right back in touch with those feelings of misery and unfocused rage at the world's unfairness. Sound fun? If not, skip to the next thing. If so, you know what to put atop your Netflix queue.
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originally posted: 08/15/06 12:41:43