Saturday 21 January 2023

Birdy (1984)

Director: Alan Parker
Writers: Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr, based on the novel by William Wharton
Stars: Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, John Harkins, Sandy Baron, Karen Young and Bruno Kirby

Index: The First Thirty.

Like Racing with the Moon, Nicolas Cage finds himself in a substantial supporting role, where he’s playing second fiddle to the lead who has more opportunities to shine. Like Racing with the Moon, he’s the dynamic half of the pair, as Matthew Modine is calmer and quieter, even before everything goes horribly wrong at war, after which point Modine doesn’t even speak.

Where they differ is that Birdy begins with these characters getting back from war rather than ending with them leaving for one. It’s not the same war, because Hopper and Nicky were leaving for World War II but Birdy and Al get back from Vietnam.

They don’t come back entirely intact either. Sgt. Al Columbato, Cage’s character, has a steel jaw wrapped up in bandages that cover half his face, just like he’s the Invisible Man. Birdy only has minor injuries but there’s something wrong with his brain. He hasn’t said a word in a month at the military hospital, he won’t feed himself and he spends his time contorted into strange positions looking at the light shining into his window. It’s pretty clear from the title that he thinks he’s a bird.

We learn why in the flashbacks that take up much of the film. Birdy’s a pigeon fancier and, when he and Al first meet as youths in Philly, they spend a lot of their time catching birds and training them to be carrier pigeons. They even wear feathered suits so that the birds will think that they’re like them, so they can catch them more effectively. After that phase ends, because these flashbacks are episodic and so there’s always another one to move onto, he continues to be involved with birds, obsessed with the idea of flight. He dreams about flying and he even learns to do it himself, for a little distance, using an ornithopter, after launching himself off the handlebars of Al’s bike.

And so, given that he’s had such an abiding affinity with birds as a youth, is it surprising that whatever traumatic situation he ends up in over there in Nam prompts him into a major reversion into thinking he’s a bird?

Birdy was critically acclaimed, as indeed was the novel on which it was based, but it didn’t do well at the box office, grossing only $1.4m against a $12m budget. I wonder if anyone was confused like me as to how old these kids are supposed to be.

Everything hints at them being teenagers in these flashbacks, even before we see them in high school, but Modine was twenty-five when he made this and he looks it. Cage looks older, even though he was only twenty at the time. They both seem to be about the right age to be returning broken from Vietnam and I have to underline that those scenes are the best in the film, but I couldn’t buy either of them in the flashback scenes, as engaging as the story got.

I’m aware that Birdy has been different, in ways that we ought to see as neurodivergent in 2022 but, had I watched this back in 1984, I would have wondered initially why the young adults were acting like kids, and, when I had to acknowledge that they really were kids, why these older actors were cast in those roles.

I had another, more serious problem too, in the fact that the flashback scenes take up the vast majority of the movie but gradually seem to be important only in how they flavour the modern day scenes, which dominate.

For instance, the first flashback scene with a serious kick to it is immediately overshadowed by the present day scenes that follow it. After Birdy’s parents destroy their pigeon loft, they buy a car from a junk yard to restore. Because they’re both underage, Al’s dad registers it in his own name and then sells it to a friend. The scene with kick has the shy Birdy standing up to Mr. Columbato and it’s an excellent scene in which Modine shines.

The only thing that spoils it is the next one, because Al succumbs to claustrophobia there in Birdy’s cell, presumably as a PTSD episode, and screams at the door to be let out, all while Birdy, on the floor in the foreground, visibly cringes at the raised volume. It’s brutal and it speaks very deeply to what war does to young minds. Suddenly, Birdy talking back to Al’s dad seems like nothing.

These hospital scenes are magnetic, Modine and Cage fantastic in all of them, even though it was hard work for both.

Modine had actually auditioned for Al, but director Alan Parker caught an “introverted honest quality” in him, so cast him as Birdy, which prompted the actor to go through “an extraordinary transformation” in his mind to make it work.

Cage was “terrified of the role of Al because it was like nothing I’d ever done before, and I didn’t know how to get to the places the role was asking me to go emotionally.” While Cage isn’t top of anyone’s list of method actors, he had two of his front teeth pulled out to make it feel like he had lost something, he slept in his bandages for five weeks and he lost fifteen pounds because he felt that, with his face that damaged, Al would have trouble eating.

Whatever they went through, they’re both excellent and, in the context of this zine, Cage is far better here than in anything he’d done before. While he didn’t embarrass himself in earlier parts, even The Best of Times, this is his first great role and his first great performance.

In fact, while Modine does more with less, I began to see this as Al’s story, not Birdy’s, and that flavoured how I started to see it progress.

If we read this straight, then Birdy is lost in his mind, even though he’s safe in a military hospital, and Al is brought in by his doctor to try to reach him. However, I started to read it differently, assuming that Birdy had died as a teenager, so obsessed with the idea of flight that he tried it by jumping out of his window and died in the attempt. Maybe Al is the one who’s being treated here and Birdy is his safe place. The moment he acknowledges that his friend is dead will be the moment his healing will truly begin.

Frustratingly, the film refuses to give us an answer there, leaving it entirely up to us. My reaction to the ending was strong enough that I realised how invested I had become in the picture. However, it seems that I’d read more into it than was actually there.

No comments: