Birdy

UK Release Date 14th June 1985
Director Alan Parker
Starring Matthew Modine
Runtime 120 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Mark
Reviewed 28th July 2014

Peter Gabriel’s haunting score spikes through the memories, dark skies, and barred windows. A phone rings as strip lighting escapes overhead. Below the stuttering neon, strapped to a gurney lies Alfonso Columbato, bandaged like the invisible man, the invisible generation.  Al lost his face in Vietnam but his earnest, boyish confidence remains just about intact.

As a strutting teenager in 60s Philadelphia Al meets Birdy, a loner fixated on birds and flight. Their childhood is tinged with golden light, fire hydrants, and the endless possibilities that new friendships offer. They train homing pigeons, rebuild a car to sell on and work as dog-catchers-anything to earn a fast buck. Where there’s muck there’s brass and their relationship blossoms amongst a backdrop of scrap and garbage.

Birdy has also returned from the war, physically unharmed but mentally scared. The psychiatric hospital cages his dreams of flight, beyond the window lies Birdy’s hope of metaphysical transformation and spiritual release. He remains perched in his cell, mute, waiting, wanting-a silent Gregor Samsa under the charge of Dr. Weiss. 

Weiss is struggling with Birdy’s condition. As a last ditch attempt to break Birdy’s catatonic state he asks Al to try and get through to his boyhood friend. Al chats and cajoles, bullies and breaks his heart, his efforts fruitless and more desperate. During these one-sided conversations their flashbacks become more intertwined, the shared memories, the secret dreams of Philadelphia testament to their unlikely friendship. 

Birdy shares touching moments with his understanding father, their gentler aspirations stolen by the necessities of the working-class ideal. Philadelphia is not the land fit for America’s WW2 heroes but a battered industrial landscape of rust and ruin. “It’s kinda hard to be good at something that nobody wants,” reasons Birdy to his father as they sit in the school’s boiler room.

Alan Parker doesn’t dwell “In country” but concentrates on the spellbinding performances of his two young stars, Cage as Al and Modine (looking startlingly like the tragic Brad Davis) as Birdy. Their friendship at turns is funny, tragic and homoerotic, tied up in hair-brained schemes. Al disintegrates from wise guy to shuffling, hysterical wreck as he tries to save not only his friend but also his own crumbling sanity. Birdy retreats into his dreams breathtakingly shown in an audacious flight sequence, Parker’s camera swooping over the apocalyptic backdrop of “The City of Brotherly Love.”

Birdy, adapted from William Wharton’s debut novel  is a soaring tale of brotherhood and a searing indictment of young men chewed up and spat out from the meat grinder of war. Wharton himself stated, “War for me, though brief, had been a soul-shaking trauma. I was scared, miserable, and I lost confidence in human beings, especially myself.” Gabriel’s music brilliantly underpins the nightmares and hopes of Michael Seresin’s surrealist cinematography and Parker’s stark, modernist, very assured direction. “I’m trying to decide what I am,” says Birdy. 30 years later so is Parker’s wonderful, enigmatic film.  

Check out the trailer here.

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