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.
The last 10 minutes of Fearless wrecked me. Whole-body shakes.
Wow, Dude, you're just totally knocking them out of the park. In the Heat of the Night and To Kill a Mockingbird were gimmes, but these two are genuinely brilliant moments in films that never quite got the attention they deserved. That last shot in Birdy is one of my all time personal favourites, simply because it IS so comic compared to everything we've seen up to that point, and the scene in Fearless utterly destroyed me when I saw it.
These posts deserve a F*@% Yeah of their own.
Jeff Bridges is one of those Gene Hackman/Michael Caine type of actors...good in absolutely anything. Even The Vanishing.
This isn't a complaint by any stretch of the imagination, but your narrative on Birdy was compelling enough that, when I came to the spoiler, I had to keep going. I just had to. I am a weak, weak man. (sob)
Birdy is in my Nextfix queue now.
I saw Rosemary's Baby at a revival house last night. (It is an unbelievable experience on a big screen.)
Awesome "F*@% Yeah" moment: When Mia Farrow spits in John Cassavetes' face.
(It was a double feature with The Tenant, one of my favorite movies. The Tenant doesn't seem to have any "F*@% Yeah" moments. It has far more than its share of "WTF?" moments, which is why I like it.)
(word verification: garbifvc, which is a code that tells you what to wear if you are Viet Cong.)
You're remembering Fearless correctly, fret not. Great movie. Probably the last great movie by Peter Weir, who also did Gallipoli, The Year Of Living Dangerously, and The Truman Show, among others.
That's not quite the end of Birdy, though.
After Birdy says "What?" and the movie ends, the credits begin immediately -- to the tune of "La Bamba."
Tonally, it's completely different from the mostly instrumental Peter Gabriel synthesizer stuff that has been getting more and more tense during the final scenes. It totally works.
What makes the ending of Birdy work, I think, is that deep down, the viewer doesn't need any exact explanation or resolution. Modine's delivery is so matter of fact, so at odds with the character's deep fugue, so, well, normal that you know, just know, as the tears well up in your eyes, that he and Al are going to be okay. And that's why it's not only a F-Yeah moment, it's also one of the finest movie endings ever.
I could go another ten years without seeing a movie with Rosie Perez. Or at least, without hearing a movie with Rosie Perez.
Lone Star, when you find out why Pilar and Sam were really being kept apart. And she says.
Forget the Alamo.
Then the silliest song "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart."
Best understated last puzzle piece just the right ending.
Ahh, Lone Star - that's a good scene. And I'm with anonymous on Rosie Perez - this is the only film I've really liked her in. She has a whine like a high-speed drill.
Probably the last great movie by Peter Weir....
Master and Commander?
Dude. I went into that movie totally expecting to hate it. No one was as amazed as me when I didn't.
Men alone on a ship for months on end! Break me off a piece of that!
Rosie Perez like a high speed drill, Dave,? Ever had a cat climb up into the engine of you car for warmth and fall asleep in the fanbelt? Right before you come out to start the car? More like that I think.
Birdy has my favorite ending to a film ever.
So glad you've immortalized it. Pity so few people seem to have seen it.
Master and Commander was surprisingly good for a film obsessed with maritime details. It helped that Bettany and Crowe had the same excellent chemistry they did in A Beautiful Mind.
Another film that had an excellent use of music over the end credits is The Chocolate War- not too many SPOILERS, but:
The ending is changed significantly, with Archie (Wallace Langham) getting his just desserts- though that doesn't necessarily mean Jerry won either.
Anyway, the film ends with Archie and Obie (Doug Hutchison!) sitting in the bleachers, as Obie, now in charge of the Vigils, recites names of students while Archie grudgingly notes how many chocolates they've sold. Obie snickers and says, "I have no idea what you were complaining about, Arch. This is easy!"
Cut to black and BAM- Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" blares over the credits, an appropriate sendoff.
The Chocolate War manages to be significantly less depressing than the book- but also manages to get away with it. It's a challenge, like all of Keith Gordon's films, but I liked it.
"Jeff Bridges is one of those Gene Hackman/Michael Caine type of actors...good in absolutely anything."
May I suggest you rent "Blown Away" before you make that statement?
"...these two are genuinely brilliant moments in films that never quite got the attention they deserved."
One of my favorite lines from the Father Ted series is from the episode where all the priests are on a plane which doesn't have enough gas to make a safe landing.
Ted: It's just a rush. I feel fearless. Like Jeff Bridges in that movie.
Dougal: I didn't see that one.
Ted: Not many people have, Dougal. It's probably a bad reference.
Birdy has just found its way onto my netflix list as well.
As for fearless... think we'll see an "Oh Shit" movie week in the future?
^^ nice blog!! ^@^
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Thank you for your article, pretty worthwhile material.
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