Birdy has been adapted from William Wharton's imaginative 1978 novel. It is an audacious movie. Screenplay writers Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr have brilliantly translated this story filled with stream of consciousness passages into an affecting tragicomedy about friendship and survival in a world of varied violations to the human spirit. Film director Alan Parker brings to Birdy the same nervous energy, propulsiveness, and respect for human idiosyncracies that animated his other films Midnight Express, Fame, and Shoot the Moon.
Al and Birdy, two young men who grew up together in the slums of South Philadelphia, have returned from Vietnam as war ravaged victims. Al's face is mutilated, and his leg is shattered. Birdy is confined to the psych ward of an Army hospital; he hasn't spoken a word in three months. Through a series of flashbacks, the film retraces their adolescent adventures.
Al is a gregarious teenager who is a high school wrestler. He firms himself up from the outside in order to survive in a hostile environment. His violent father, a garbageman, is the enemy, and nubile young girls are there for the taking.
Birdy is a reclusive and dreamy boy who builds himself up from the inside using his imagination to sidestep an oppressive mother and indifferent peers. Birdy and Al become friends; they are yin and yang, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Batman and Robin.
Birdy is fascinated with birds. He builds a cage for pigeons in his backyard, then makes feathered suits for himself and Al so that they can get close to the birds without spooking them. When Birdy falls off a gas tower during one expedition to collect pigeons, he mistakes falling for flying and becomes thoroughly hooked on the dream of flight.
The two friends purchase an old car, fix it up, and drive to Atlantic City. Al is ready for other such adventures, but Birdy turns his attention to raising and breeding canaries in his bedroom. He creates an alternate world which sends his spirit soaring. In the queeping of Perta, his favorite canary, Birdy hears a language that speaks to his longing for freedom. In the flutter of the canaries' wings, he senses a transcendence that words cannot express. Eventually, even Al is excluded from Birdy's dream world.
Vietnam causes further separation and leaves them deeply scarred. Al has to have plastic surgery on his face which is wrapped in bandages. He is summoned by an Army psychiatrist to try to pull Birdy out of catatonia. In his bare cell, Birdy perches on the edge of the bed; he stares at the barred window; he crouches in corners. Al tries desperately to reach him, talking about their past, imploring him to snap out of his birdlike fixation. The experience brings Al to the breaking point.
In a very difficult role, Matthew Modine is just right as Birdy, an outsider who finds his own unique way of dealing with the disappointments and injustices of life. Even better is Nicolas Cage; he puts in an Academy Award caliber performance as Al, a tough man/boy who is at one loveable, defiant, and vulnerable. Also good in supporting roles are Sandy Baron as Al's father, Dolores Sage as Birdy's mother, George Buck as Birdy's father, and John Harkins as an army psychiatrist.
In an electrifying scene at the end of the film, Al holds Birdy in his arms. In an angry, sad, and despairing monologue, he affirms their friendship and curses the world for violating them and their hopes for the future. Birdy chirps a few words and comes back to reality on the wings of Al's need. They escape the cell and on the roof of the hospital try one last fling at flying and freedom. This exalting act is an impressive finale to one of the best movies of 1984.