The American veteran experience is one that is wholly unique, and also extremely personal. While citizens can certainly show their support in a number of ways, it’s impossible to entirely empathize with exactly what it’s like to fight in a foreign warzone for our country. It’s through first-hand accounts and, yes, fictional art that we can hope to understand a mere portion of what it’s like. That’s one of the primary focuses of filmmaker Alexandre Moore’s Iraq War drama The Yellow Birds. Based on the novel of the same name by Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers, the film tracks a pair of privates in the U.S. Army through their experience, while offering up a mystery narrative hook. While the film ultimately gets too hung up on this mystery aspect, thereby softening the blow of its finale, it rings true to a dark, emotionally complex PTSD experience and proves, once again, that Alden Ehrehreich is a movie star in the making.
Ehrenreich plays John Bartle, a 20-year-old misanthrope who joins the Army because he can’t really think of anything else to do. At the behest of his obviously-a-little-unhinged superior Sergeant Sterling (Jack Huston), he’s paired up with another new recruit, Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan). Murphy is a wide-eyed 18-year-old from a military family who sees joining the Army as an early pit-stop on his eventual career path—something he does out of duty, but that will ultimately be a significant footnote in his life’s story. As the two witness the horrors of war together, their bond grows stronger, but the film’s fractured narrative jumps ahead to Bartle and Sterling coming back home, while Murphy has been officially listed as Missing in Action.
Murphy’s mother (played by a terrific Jennifer Aniston) launches an investigation of her own into what happened to her son, while Bartle and Sterling obviously exhibit signs that they know more than they’re letting on. Once home, Bartle is shown suffering from severe PTSD, coming to violent blows with his own mother (Toni Collette), drowning himself in alcohol, and avoiding his friends. Ehrenreich is phenomenal here, bringing a nuance to the role that maintains Bartle’s humanity, even as he’s seemingly loosing his mind.
Look, we all know that Ehrenreich is poised to break out huge as young Han Solo in the upcoming Star Wars spinoff, but his presence has been electric since his starring turn in the underseen Beautiful Creatures. He proved with that film that he had the chops to be a leading man, and if last year’s Hail, Caesar! showed off his versatility, The Yellow Birds is a testament to his depth and commitment as an actor. His face is unendingly interesting, and Ehrenreich taps into Bartle’s initial malaise perfectly, embodying the feeling of a young man who doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do with his life.
Sheridan also turns in really solid work here as Murphy begins his slow turn from excitable recruit to regretful, obviously unsettled veteran. But it’s Aniston who may be the film’s biggest and best surprise. She’s obviously shown her knack for acting in prior works, but she’s never really taken on a role quite like this, and her performance is a moving portrait of a grieving mother who just wants to know what happened to her son.
Visually, Moore crafts some really stunning shots with the film, and hits upon a dour, immersive aesthetic that sells the impact of the war. But the movie begins to suffer narratively in its second half, where the mystery haunts every scene. It’s drawn out for quite a lengthy period of time, and as the tension of what exactly happened grows, so does the expectation that the revelation will be worth all this waiting. When the revelation does come, it doesn’t land near as hard as it should for all that build-up, and it poses some practicality questions that detract from the emotional impact. The film is emotionally truthful for most of its runtime, and the performances go a long way towards telegraphing the emotional and psychological impact of something as hellish as being in a firefight, but as the narrative becomes tedious, what should be an emotional gutpunch of a conclusion ends up falling flat.