We’re heading all the way back to one of Nicolas Cage’s earliest lead roles for day 5, 1984’s Birdy. This is an affecting period drama directed by the famously diverse Alan Parker, in-between rock musical Pink Floyd: The Wall and horror Angel Heart.
Birdy tells the story of two friends, ‘Birdy’ (Matthew Modine) and Al (Cage). The film begins quite slowly in a military hospital after the Vietnam War where both men have been sent. Al has received severe facial injuries and his head is now encased in bandages, despite this, he retains a level of humour, jokingly remarking to the doctor how he resembles ‘The Invisible Man’. ‘Birdy’ on the other hand, appears to have suffered serious psychological damage and is near catatonic, spending his time making strange bird like poses in his room and never speaking to anyone. The doctors hope the arrival of his former friend could help him recover.
The film then flashes back to how they met as teenagers, when a mistaken accusation leads to an altercation between the two, they settle the dispute and start over. From a young age, ‘Birdy’ has had something of a fascination with birds.
‘Do you like pigeons?’ he asks Al, holding a box of them,
‘What’s to like?’
His obsession becomes clearer the more we get to know him, in some ways he seems more interested with flight than actual birds, but this doesn’t extend to aircraft.
The film presents two timelines throughout, continually alternating between scenes in the hospital and flashbacks to their youth. We see how they bond and become good friends but how as they grow up Cage tension is put on their relationship as Al becomes popular with girls and Birdy tends to put them off.
He’s quite a fascinating character, often seeming somewhat crazy with his bird obsession, talking about how he’s going to fly himself and assembling costumes and flight wings, but also shows passion and intelligence when speaking about flight mechanics to his class.
The flashback narrative is certainly the stronger one in Birdy, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the film would have worked without the consistent cutaways to the present. It’s possible, but the hospital scenes add more significance to their previous friendship, the pacing could have perhaps been tightened up a little in them though, as often little progression is made before cutting back to another flashback.
While the Vietnam conflict looms over the whole story, Birdy isn’t really a war film. The war scenes aren’t shown until very late in the game, and are brief. War, and its affects don’t seem to be the main focus of Birdy, the friendship between the two characters, one very well-adjusted, one not, is.
As for Cage himself, he delivers a highly charismatic and affecting performance as Al, I’d say it’s among his best work, and that’s really quite something considering he was only 19 at the time of filming. You can see why how he could have stood out to viewers at the time of release as a potential future star.
Birdy decides to conclude on a jarring, out-of-place comedy beat, but is definitely a film worth seeking out, and another performance to silence anyone who thinks Cage isn’t a good dramatic actor.