Director Alan Parker’s Birdy is the story of two lifelong friends who come of age together in Philadelphia and both suffer horribly from physical and mental wounds sustained in the Vietnam War. The movie begins in a psychiatric hospital where Al (Nicolas Cage), whose bandaged face has been disfigured from a bomb blast, is called in by an Army doctor to try to help rehabilitate his friend Birdy (Matthew Modine), who squats like a bird in his room, catatonic.
As Al tries to draw Birdy back from his disassociative state, we learn more about their relationship and history through a series of flashbacks. Al is a Philly street tough who befriends the introspective, eccentric Birdy, who is obsessed with the idea of flight. Birdy is a sensitive kid who sees flying as a means of escape from his surroundings. The two youths capture and train homing pigeons and support each other through the trials of adolescence. Birdy is obsessed with birds, has hallucinatory visions of flying, and eventually builds his own homemade flying machine.
When the two of them are separated and shipped off to Vietnam, Birdy finds himself in a terrible situation without Al’s support, a nightmare that he cannot fly away from. After surviving a helicopter crash and apocalyptic napalm attack, Birdy withdraws from reality and is hospitalized. Al, too, endures crippling physical and psychological wounds, and the two are reunited in a grim stateside hospital.
The movie is deftly directed by Parker, who also directed Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Angel Heart. Birdy functions equally well as a story about the transformative power of friendship and as an examination on the terrible toll that life and war can take on young men. Cage and Modine have great chemistry, and the flashbacks effectively engage the viewer and make you care about the outcome.
So that’s the set-up. Now I am going to ruin the movie for you by describing the F*@% Yeah moment at the very end. If you’re at all interested in experiencing Birdy’s genuinely surprising and cathartic ending, heed my SPOILER ALERT and read no further.
After numerous conversations, Al has been unable to fully pull Birdy out of his catatonia. Birdy has made some progress, but Al seems to be getting worse himself. The Army doctor who arranged their sessions together wants Al to return to Fort Dix. Despondent, Al gives up. “They got the best of us…” he says. “Maybe we should just stay here.”
Birdy suddenly snaps out of his fugue and says, “Al, you’re so full of shit.”
Al and Birdy make a daring escape. They reach the roof of the hospital, and Birdy takes off towards the edge. Al fears his friend’s obsession with flight and escape has returned in a suicidal way. “Birdy!”
Birdy reaches the edge of the hospital roof and jumps off. Al is horrified. “Birdy!”
Al runs to the edge of the roof – and finds Birdy standing on a second rooftop about six feet lower. Birdy looks up at Al and innocently says, “What?”
End of movie.
Some have complained that the sudden, almost comic ending is such a departure in tone from the rest of the film that it’s jarring, but I think it’s perfect. It’s a fantastic, triumphant catharsis. You know that in that one moment that Al and Birdy have in effect saved each other. When I first saw Birdy, it pulled an honest, relieved, unfiltered emotional response from me – something few movies ever do.
Another movie that deals with post traumatic stress and the aftermath of a horrific incident is Peter Weir’s Fearless. Max (Jeff Bridges) and Carla (Rosie Perez) are survivors of a deadly airliner crash who are drawn together but have completely different reactions to their experience. Max is now utterly fearless, to an unhealthy degree. Carla is distraught and overcome with guilt by the death of her baby in the crash. Max develops a strange, intimate relationship with Carla, neglecting his own family. He begins doing foolhardy things like standing on the edge of a skyscraper roof, walking blithely through speeding traffic, and eating strawberries, which he is deadly allergic to.
Max tries but cannot convince Carla that the death of her child was no fault of her own. During a scene in which she’s absolutely despondent, a desperate Max comes up with a novel way to demonstrate her blamelessness and absolve her of responsibility – which brings us to our F*@% Yeah moment.
Max takes the grief-stricken Carla and places her in the back seat of his car, fastening her seat belt. He pulls a toolbox from the trunk. U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” starts up on the soundtrack, which may sound corny, but it totally works. Max puts the toolbox in her lap. “That’s your baby. Hold on to your baby.”
He jumps in the driver’s seat and guns the car. “Hold on to your baby!” he screams. He’s heading right for a wall. “Hold on to your baby! Don’t let go of your baby!”
The car slams full-force into the wall and the music stops.
The camera moves over Carla, then Max, both injured, then past the shattered windshield and crumpled, hissing hood, finally resting on the toolbox , which has smashed against the wall. There is no way Carla could have saved her baby.
Actually, it’s more of an “Oh shit!” moment, but it’s so powerful and memorable that I had to include it here. To be honest I haven’t see Fearless in ten years, but that scene still sticks in my mind. I hope I’m remembering the whole thing correctly.
Thus ends this week’s off-topic foray into some of my favorite F*@% Yeah moments. Thanks for playing. We now return our attention back to the comics, good and bad, that wait patiently for us in my long boxes.