Underseen Movie: Alan Parker’s ‘Birdy’ Starring Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine

Birdy” is a great movie and a deeply felt character study about two young men who grow up together, and who are forever changed by the war they are drafted into. The movie is based on a book by William Wharton which chronicles two characters who are thrown into World War II. For the film, it was changed to Vietnam as the screenwriters, Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr, wanted to work with their own youthful experiences. The story starts out with the two main characters who are now out of the Vietnam War, but who are forever scared by it permanently. In the end, they see all they have is each other.

Events move back and forth in time as we first see Nicolas Cage’s character of Alfonso “Al” Columbato coming out of the hospital following a bomb explosion which seriously disfigured his face. Bandaged like a Frankenstein creation, or like Michael Myers at the beginning of “Halloween 4,” he is no longer the ladies’ man we see getting to first base in scenes from his past. From there, Al travels to another army hospital where Birdy (Matthew Modine) is holed up in a cell not saying a word. After the damage the war has done to him, Birdy (we never learn his real name) has seemingly accomplished what he has set out to do – to become a bird in his own mind.

“Birdy” then shifts to their high school years in Philadelphia when Al and Birdy first met. While they initially seem like complete opposites, we come to see they want the same thing in life: to fly away from their problems. With Al, he has an abusive father to deal with who thinks nothing of smacking his son around when he screws up, and being on the high school wrestling team helps him deal with his utter frustration of not being able to stand up to him. With Birdy, he has a tough as nails father who is nowhere as sympathetic and understanding as his janitor father, and who is always taking away the baseballs that the kids unintentionally keep batting into her yard. Both Al and Birdy keep coming up with schemes to make money while hoping for an escape from their meager existence. But when it comes to flying away, Birdy is a far more literal about it.

Al really represents Birdy’s strongest link to the outside world as he falls deeper and deeper into his obsession with birds and in wanting to fly like one. He never shows much interest in anything you expect teenagers to indulge themselves in like girlfriends, making out, or being normal. One of the funniest expressions Birdy has is when he talks about how bad he feels for women as they have to have breasts which they just have to carry around and how they flop all over the place. I can’t think of anyone else who would make such a ridiculous argument, man or woman.

The scenes in which Birdy spends time with a beautiful yellow canary he gets and names Perta are some of the most memorable to found here. This is not just some National Geographic special you are watching as we see him studying birds ever so closely, almost making love to them. There is one amazing sequence where he dreams he is flying like a bird and director Alan Parker shoots the scene from a bird’s eye view as we go around people and fly over cars and then way up into the sky above. All this done to the instrumental version of Peter Gabriel’s “Not One of Us,” and this is one first movies to make use of the Skycam which is used to incredible effect.

While all this may make this movie sound like a nostalgic journey to the past, it is really a very hard-hitting movie which has its funny and nostalgic moments and also many awkward and painful ones. Seeing Birdy going to a prom, only because his mom threatens to get rid of his birds if he doesn’t, is painful in terms of how much we know he doesn’t want to be there, and you feel for his date who has the biggest crush on him. Hell, I would have killed to date the girl he goes out with! And seeing at the start how these guys are now at living in a time where they are forever changed, we know they are on an emotional descent which may permanently rob them of what is left of their humanity.

Seeing these two actors early on in their careers reminds you of just how talented they are. Cage’s role of Al is one of my favorites of his as we see him as a fun-loving guy, and then as a frightened war veteran who is terribly uncertain of what lies ahead for him. Having to spend so much of this movie in bandages could seem so limiting to many actors, but not to Mr. Cage. Before production began, it was said he had his wisdom teeth removed and without Novocaine. Learning this really made my mouth hurt! Talk about suffering for your art! Still, it did make his performance feel rawer and more genuine, and I still look forward to seeing more work from him like this even as he continues to dwell in the direct to video realm.

Modine has an especially hard role to play because he could have played it far too broadly, but he makes Birdy’s love for birds seem so real to where it is perfectly understandable why he has since withdrawn from reality. When we see him at the hospital, he is almost completely speechless and has to convey how he feels through his eyes, something actors need to learn if they want to be great at their job. This is one his best performances as well, and it led him to a career where he has played many different roles, and he continues to do so.

This is one of Parker’s best movies, and it stands alongside his strongest efforts including “Midnight Express” and “Mississippi Burning.” With “Birdy,” he has not just made some simple antiwar movie about how unnecessary and brutal war is, but of the bond of friendship and how it can never be completely broken, especially when you are in need. In essence, the scars, both physically and mentally, which have been inflicted on these two men bring them together because it seems like no one else can ever truly understand them. The heart of this movie is in the way these two men lean on each other, and how they recognize each other’s strengths. Parker gets this and makes it the main thrust of this excellent motion picture. In the end, most of his movies deal with people in a place which seems so alien and unwelcome to them, and of the rough and tumble journey to get back to the land of the living.

And, of course, I cannot complete this interview without mentioning Peter Gabriel’s film score as it has provided me with a soundtrack I never get sick of listening to. While it may seem weird to compose music to a period movie with electronic instruments, his music fits perfectly into the themes Parker deals with here. Like the characters, it is in its own world and dwells in both the beauty and pain of life. The music is cribbed from a lot of Gabriel’s other albums (which he has he freely admitted to many times), and it would have been interesting if he did include some of the lyrics to the songs used here like “Wallflower” as they illustrate the mental health obstacles these two men have to overcome.

Seriously, I love “Birdy,” and when the name Alan Parker comes up, this is one of the first movies of his I think of. It also contains one of the best endings of any movie I have ever seen, and you have to watch “Birdy” all the way through to the end in order to fully appreciate it. Trust me, it is worth the trouble, and it makes this Grand Prix Spécial du Jury prize winner from the Cannes Film Festival all the more unforgettable.

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