Sean and I have been sharing the 90s movies we’re nostalgic for, movies that I so treasured in my youth that they still make me feel young to this day. I wondered if there was a specific movie that made me realize I’ve crossed over to old. Does such a movie exist? I do remember watching a not very good movie called Better Off Dead and realize that rather than empathizing with the young John Cusack character, I actually sympathized for the dad. Gah! And lately, because we’ve been able to binge-watch 30 years worth of The Simpsons on Disney+, I’ve realized that when that show first came on the air, I was Lisa’s age, and now I’m older than Homer and Marge. Oof. But today I stumbled upon the real answer: war movies. I’ve never been more acutely aware just how young 18 is than watching war movies.
Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan) is 18 and still has no need for a razor when he enlists in the army. He makes fast friends with Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), who is barely older than he is, but just barely is enough for Murph’s mom (Jennifer Aniston) to make Bartle promise to look after him. Then, before they can fully lace up their boots, they’re shipped to Iraq.
I think 18 is young to choose a major in college. Not necessarily for a lack of maturity but at 18 you’ve hardly seen the world, you hardly know the choices, or what that degree actually means, and whether it will actually translate into a well-paying job you won’t immediately hate. Eighteen is certainly too young to make a commitment that could get your limbs blown off – or worse. It’s too young to really understand what you’re getting into, and what’s truly on the line. It’s too young to understand the politics of war and whether all engagements are worthy (and even seasoned politicians don’t understand, but nor do they care – it’s not their asses on the line). It’s too young to really understand the sacrifice; the teenage brain still believes itself to be invincible. Statistics are just things that happen to other people who aren’t and never could be you.
It’s achingly young; Murph sees some shit that no kid should ever see. He’s not supposed to think for himself. Orders are orders. But killing people is killing people and young Murph just can’t make that right in his head. And I don’t need to tell you how very scant the mental health resources are in the army. The army eats up young people and spits out mangled bodies and mangled souls. Murph becomes a lost soul, disconnected and disillusioned. Bartle is haunted by that promise to Murph’s mom.
When Bartle returns home, his mother (Toni Collette) finds him changed, disturbed. But Murph’s mom finds that her son is missing. Bartle knows the answers but might be too broken to tell.
The Yellow Birds has uniformly stellar performances. It’s a little familiar, perhaps not a very distinguished addition to the war movie canon, but I do think its message is worthy. We all know that war is hell, but this film reminds us that the hell extends beyond the battlefield.