Alden Ehrenreich in The Yellow Birds review

The Yellow Birds is guaranteed to attract a certain amount of attention simply because it’s Alden Ehrenreich‘s last major role before Han Solo, and Star Wars fans will be gratified to see that Lucasfilm’s faith in him is not misplaced. He puts in an unforgettable lead performance as Bartle, a young soldier who’s deployed to war and comes back a haunted man, for reasons he’s unwilling or unable to articulate.

But The Yellow Birds is far more than an acting showcase for Ehrenreich’s talents, and would deserve to be seen no matter what big franchises its stars were doing next. It’s a war drama that’s far less interested in the heroism of battle than its cost, as told through the story of a single soldier and those in his immediate orbit. 

Directed by Alexandre Moors (Blue Caprice) and written by David Lowery and R.F.I. PortoThe Yellow Birds is an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kevin Powers, himself an Iraq War veteran. Ehrenreich play Bartle, who befriends a younger soldier, Murphy (Tye Sheridan) in army training. The buddies are shipped off to Iraq together, along with their sergeant, Sterling (a very fine Jack Huston). But Murphy never returns home. Bartle does, but he’s a shell of his former self, barely able to do much more than sleep and drink.

The question of Murphy’s fate is the weakest part of The Yellow Birds, since it’s not so much a mystery as it is a delayed reveal. The parallel investigations being conducted by Murphy’s mother (Jennifer Aniston) and a military investigator (Jason Patric) never really pick up steam, and when the answer finally comes it feels almost anticlimactic. Though the film finishes strong, it’s hard not to get a little impatient on the way there.

Basically every war movie ever made takes pains to point out that war is hell, but the way The Yellow Birds presents that hell is interesting, precisely because it’s not that interesting. In a lot of ways, life in Iraq is a lot like life anywhere else for these soldiers. They have holiday parties and workplace crushes and inside jokes. Except, of course, that their days are often interrupted by bombs and gunfire. While The Yellow Birds isn’t especially graphic by war drama standards, its brief spurts of violence are effective. When another soldier is shot down just feet away from Bartle and Murphy, his death is shocking in its suddenness. Moors lingers on the moment, so we can see how quickly and senselessly his life is cut short.

The characters, too, are depicted as more or less normal people. There is nothing especially noble about the reasons Bartle and Murphy chose to enter the military, or anything exceptionally heroic about their actions once they’re there. Murphy and Sterling both evoke characters we’re familiar with from other war dramas — Murphy is the gentle naïf who shares his potato chips with the local children, Sterling is the hotheaded leader who’s got no love for the enemy — but The Yellow Birds complicates those archetypes by keeping them grounded and treating them with empathy, rather than fascination. By insisting on such normalcy, The Yellow Birds drives home just how abnormal war is.

The Yellow Birds isn’t overtly political, by which I mean it does not offer any easy heroes or villains. It doesn’t really examine our motives for going into Iraq, or try to make suggestions about what we might have done differently. But by narrowing its focus on a small handful of soldiers and those in their immediate orbit, it forces us to take in the true cost of war, both for the people in the battlefield and the people waiting for them back at home. Here’s what you’re really asking of them, the film says. Is it worth it?

/Film rating: 8 out of 10

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