The Yellow Birds

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
The Yellow Birds Movie Poster Image
War violence, language, shocking moments in mature drama.
  • R
  • 2018
  • 94 minutes

Parents say

age 18+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The clearest message is a simple one: "War is hell." It's conveyed less by focusing on the brutality of combat than on the aftereffects for survivors. There is war violence, but it's not glamorized. Fidelity to comrades and to a solemn promise are emphasized.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Bartle makes extremely iffy but also understandable choices, making him an everyman stuck in a terrible situation. His human response to it -- and the eventual way he comes around to the truth -- sets a realistic example. One soldier's mother shows dogged determination in seeking the real story of what happened to her son.


Most of the war violence isn't particularly graphic -- shootings, shellings, etc. But two scenes up the intensity level: A soldier physically accosts his mother, and a key character is horribly mutilated and killed -- the result of cruel torture; his body briefly but memorably shown. Two suicide attempts, one successful. Also plenty of fear, tension, peril.


A couple of non-intense/graphic sexual situations. No nudity.


Pervasive profanity, including many uses of "f--k" and its variants, plus "s--t," "ass," "goddamn," "bitch," etc. "Hajji" used as a racial epithet.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drinking to excess as a form of self-medication. Ambiguous possible drug use (shown quickly); soldier smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Yellow Birds is a mature drama that focuses on young soldier Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), who's haunted by his service in Iraq and memories of his best friend there, Murph (Tye Sheridan). It takes a complex view of war and the aftermath for those involved. While there's plenty of tension and peril, most of the war violence isn't overly graphic, aside from a couple of incidents that definitely up the intensity level. One involves a soldier who physically accosts his own mother, and one involves the disturbingly mutilated corpse of a key character, who appears to have been tortured to death. There's also a little bit of sex and substance-related content, including a soldier who self-medicates by drinking lots of beer.

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What's the story?

THE YELLOW BIRDS follows young soldier Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), who's haunted by his service in Iraq and his memories of his best friend there, Daniel "Murph" Murphy (Tye Sheridan). The story bounces around in time, showing viewers scenes set after Bartle's service, some that take place during the war, and others set during his early days in the Army, when he and Murph were taken under the wing of a sergeant (Jack Huston) who may be unstable. Back home, Bartle struggles to readjust and dodges his mother (Toni Collette), Murph's mother (Jennifer Aniston), and an Army investigator (Jason Patric) who's looking into Bartle's wartime actions. Something has to give -- either Bartle's well-being or the secret he's harboring.

Is it any good?

This adaptation of Kevin Powers' acclaimed Iraq War novel has poetic moments and strong acting, but also a strange lack of tension. Director Alexandre Moors finds beauty in strange places in The Yellow Birds, such as a stretch of lush green in the desert or a moment of connection at a barracks party. He elicits centered performances from his cast, including strong support by Aniston as a desperate mother, Collette as an exasperated one, and Huston as a veteran leader who defies the easy dramatic classifications of "good" and "bad." And the two leads are outstanding. Sheridan (Mud, Joe, Ready Player One) is a soulful actor who deftly conveys Murph's naïveté and eventual crisis. He's instantly sympathetic. Ehrenreich, who has swung hard from impressive work (Hail, Caesar) to less so (Solo: A Star Wars Story) is focused and settled as the damaged young man at the story's center. His Bartle is a true everyman -- without direction, not a star soldier, not a failure. The difference in him before and after he reaches his personal breaking point is clear; the sometimes-poetic narration seems to come from somewhere that didn't exist until it was unearthed by his experiences.

That said, there's a kind of emotional and dramatic inevitability to the unraveling of the central mystery that lowers the film's stakes. This may be due to the narrative's time-jumping, which sometimes works and sometimes feels forced. And the choices involved in the central incident aren't easy to understand. They feel overly rushed and easy on screen, so we don't feel the fear or horror that key incident requires. The Yellow Birds' lack of dramatic tension may stem from a filmmaking choice to focus on the characters, a streamlining of the book's plot and relationships, or insufficient shaping in the editing room. Whatever the cause, the unfortunate result is a lower level of engagement than this otherwise well-made drama deserves.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how The Yellow Birds depicts war and combat. Does any of it seem fun or exciting? How does it portray the relationship between U.S. forces and the Iraqi locals?

  • How do the violent scenes in this movie compare to what you might see in an action film? Which has more impact? Why?

  • Does the film feel political to you? Do you think it's trying to make a statement of any kind?

  • Why do you think Bartle and Sgt. Sterling made the choice they did? Why was it so hard for them to live with that choice? What would you have done?

Movie details

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