It’s unusual, at the Sundance Film Festival, to see a drama about a subject like the Iraq War. The economics of scale required to stage an authentic combat scene don’t tend to mesh with indie-film budgets — and besides, there are enough towering war films in our time that the bar for them has been set extraordinarily high. So say this much for “The Yellow Birds”: When it plunks the audience down into a crumbling urban war zone, where every dirt road and alleyway could be a path to oblivion, the movie, if nothing else, creates a physically convincing atmosphere of instability and fearful tension. The movie opens with U.S. soldiers walking across a dark field, past palm trees (one of which is on fire), in a grimly patterned death march that evokes — ironically — the final moments of “Full Metal Jacket.” And, indeed, Stanley Kubrick’s great Vietnam film seems to have been a key model for Alexandre Moors, the director of “The Yellow Birds,” at least when it comes to imagining the random, bullet-strafing, enemy-without-a-face logistics of contemporary combat.
Moors, who hails from France but has lived in the U.S. since 1998, is known for “Blue Caprice” (2013), his attempt to dramatize the genesis of the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. In “The Yellow Birds,” he stages the Iraq scenes with scale, verve, and confidence, though with nothing approaching the sustained anxiety and suspense that audiences now want and expect from a war movie. (It may sound a bit unseemly to say that films like “Hacksaw Ridge” or “The Hurt Locker” render the horrors of war unbearably exciting, but that’s part of what they do.) “The Yellow Birds” follows a platoon of U.S. Army soldiers who wind up on rooftops, engaging in shootouts with figures they can hardly see, or firing up at giant battered buildings, or being ambushed by an IED at the rare moment they feel invincible.
“The Yellow Birds,” however, is not just a combat film. It’s a somber, guilt-ridden meditation on the price of war, one that examines the intertwined fates of two soldiers: Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), 20 years old, lost in the murk of what happened over there, and Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan), the 18-year-old recruit he took under his wing. The film keeps acting like it has something big to tell us; it plods and broods with self-importance. Yet in almost every crucial way, “The Yellow Birds” is a flat and listless piece of moviemaking, a monotonous indie dirge that will probably end up fighting hard to win even a tiny audience.
The closest thing the film has to a draw is Alden Ehrenreich, who is of course a hot property now that he’s going to be playing the young Han Solo. Yet in “The Yellow Birds,” where it’s impossible not to scan his presence to see if he has a bit of the cocky surliness of the young Harrison Ford, he comes off more like Montgomery Clift: a delicate ’50s brooder, elegantly handsome and a touch effete, his fine sculpted features resolved into a scowl of concern that almost never leaves his face. He’s supposed to be an aimless drifter from Virginia who falls into enlistment because he’s got no other plans; when he’s fooling around with his girlfriend in the back of a car, and she asks him (playfully) to go college with her, he acts like it’s an absurd request. But the truth is that Ehrenreich comes off just like a college boy. He’s hard to buy as a soldier, because he doesn’t seem tough enough; we never glimpse his inner badass.
During the war, Brandon looks out for Murphy (played by Tye Sheridan, from Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” as a sweet dim kid in way over his head), but he returns alone, because Murphy has gone missing. What happened to him? That mystery is the heart of the movie, and Moors, as a director, drags it out. The script is credited to David Lowery and R.F.I. Porto (it’s adapted from a 2012 novel by Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers), but the movie has a patchwork structure — it seems to have been pieced together in the editing room — and most of the scenes are rudderless, because they’re barely burdened with dialogue. The pain the film is supposed to be about is portrayed as being “beyond words.”
This mean that we get endless scenes of Brandon lying around in bed, skulking over to the convenience store to buy a six-pack, or warring with his mother (a convincingly emotionally bedraggled Toni Collette). He’s got his big secret about what happened over there, and he’s going to take forever to tell it, even as he’s stalked by a dour CID officer (Jason Patric) and by Murphy’s mother, Maureen, played by Jennifer Aniston, who conveys a truth-at-all-costs desperation, even though she’s a shade too punchy and telegraphed about it. The one other main character is the two soldiers’ commanding officer, Sergeant Sterling, who Jack Huston portrays as a cliché Texas bad-boy varmint, though the movie snaps to life whenever he’s on screen.
So what did happen over there? I won’t reveal it, but we’re led to suspect that Murphy is no longer alive, and when the revelation of his fate finally arrives, you may find yourself seriously questioning the basic moral decision made by a key character. It seems not just wrong but, frankly, unbelievable — a contrived way for the film to convert its tragedy into a “metaphor.” Most of the powerful war movies of our time were made by directors, from Steven Spielberg to Kathryn Bigelow to Mel Gibson, who have not known combat themselves. But they make you feel like they know it in their bones. In “The Yellow Birds,” Alexandre Moors gets through the battle scenes, but when it comes to the true stakes of war and what it is that makes soldiers tick, he can barely fake it.