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Philly boys Al and Birdy became friends in high school despite the extreme difference in their personalities, Al being the popular and athletic extrovert, Birdy the antisocial "weird" introvert. Al gave Birdy his nickname because of his fascination - obsession really - with birds, especially with flight. Al and Birdy have just completed their service of duty in the Vietnam War and have returned to the States. Al sustained some serious physical injuries, which required major reconstructive surgery to his face. Birdy, however, returned from Vietnam seemingly emotionally scarred. He was missing in action for one month. He has not spoken since he was found. Despite his own medical issues, Al travels to the institution where Birdy is being kept to see if he can assist in getting Birdy out of his near comatose state. Having always had issues with authority, Al is less than forthright with the doctors about Birdy's mental state prior to the war. As Al tries whatever he can to help Birdy ...Written by
Brilliant story of friendship, and a journey into madness
Birdy is a difficult film to describe. It's about the developing friendship between Al (Nick Cage) and Birdy (Matthew Modine), but it's also about a descent into madness, and the lengths to which Al goes for his friend.
The film starts in the late 60's, in a US military mental hospital. Cage has been seriously wounded, and has had reconstructive surgery on his face, but he's been brought in because Birdy is here. He's uncommunicative and appears to recognise no one, spending all day squatting on the floor of his cell squinting up at the window.
The story is mostly told in flashbacks, either Al recounting incidents in their growing friendship as neighbourhood kids or, later, Birdy remembering other incidents. From the start the two are pretty dissimilar - Al is athletic, outgoing and popular while Birdy is quiet and introverted - a typical nerd. The two are, paradoxically, brought together by Birdy's love of birds, and the stupid things they do - making suits out of pigeon feathers to befriend more pigeons, climbing on (and falling off) factories trying to capture more birds.
Al tries to set Birdy on a 'normal' track; they buy a wrecked car and fix it up, and head off to the beach. But Birdy is just too wrapped up in himself for this to work, and it's a wonder he doesn't alienate Al with his strange behaviour.
In the 'present', the doctor is putting more pressure on Al to get Birdy to respond; if he doesn't, then Birdy will be written off and sent to a permanent mental institution. The flashbacks continue, and it becomes clear that Birdy's love of birds has turned into an obsession, and then into the darker realms beyond that.
The final few minutes of the film cover a lot of ground; Al finally realises that Birdy is pretty well off the deep end; they both go off to fight in the war; Al gets his injury, while we see the incident that left Birdy in his present state. Meanwhile the doctor finally decides that time has run out, but Al decides he's not leaving.
The ending of the film is incredibly powerful, and it should be a criminal offence to give it away. Is it 'appropriate' to the rest of the film? I dunno - but I thought it was pretty damn good.
The film stands or falls on the performances of Cage and Modine - and, for me, it stands tall. Cage is excellent in his role, capturing the bravado of his character perfectly; but Modine is simply brilliant. During the flashbacks he portrays his nerdy character completely believably, but it's the way he handles the scenes in the asylum that amazed me. As soon as you know his obsession, it is crystal clear that he's not squatting in his cell, but perching, wishing to fly.
Alan Parker has made some great films; this might just be his best.
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