The Big Year: based on a book by Mark Obmascik

Directed by David Frankel. Fox 2000 Pictures.

Reviewed by Tom Leskiw

Ever since it was revealed that a movie was being made of Obmascik’s 2004 book, “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession,” the birding community has eagerly—tempered by some trepidation—awaited the results. Full disclosure: as an avid birder since 1987, I count myself a member of this community. I don’t invoke the term “trepidation” lightly, for within this diverse group, there remain two constants: first, a shared mania for getting the science right, such as the distinction between a species’ songs and calls; second, and most importantly, the wish to avoid a replay of past movies and TV shows that have given inaccurate, cartoonish portrayals of individuals for whom “buffoonish” is one of the kinder descriptors.

For instance, in the 1962 movie “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation,” Jimmy Stewart meets a “half-bubble-off-center” birdwatcher whose long days in the field yield several out-of-habitat birds plus a potpourri of inaccurate soundtrack calls and songs for birds that have no business being in a marsh. And don’t get me started on the annoying Miss Hathaway from “The Beverly Hillbillies” TV show, a caricature that likely remains encoded on viewers’ memory banks to this day.  

Thus, I am pleased to report that I found “The Big Year” an entertaining, enjoyable ride—one with sympathetic, 3-dimensional characters who sweep you up in their quest to see the most bird species within North America (excluding Mexico) during a calendar year.

Nearly every movie takes some literary license with its source material, and “The Big Year” is no exception. But here’s the kicker: many of the changes resulted in a more-compelling narrative, better focusing the challenges, risks, and adverse impacts to one’s family life experienced by obsessed individuals who embark on a marathon, year-long avian treasure hunt. Director Frankel had the foresight to employ Obmascik—a birder himself—as one the screenwriters, key to keeping the script true to the spirit of the book.

The movie centers around the exploits of three men engaged in a Big Year. As 1998 dawns, Sandy Komito holds the record for most number of bird species seen: 721 during 1987. Perhaps the most-notable departure from the book is that Komito, who is again doing a Big Year in 1998, has morphed into a completely different—and much younger—character named Kenny Bostick, played by Owen Wilson. Kenny is a 30-something whose current wife has been taking hormone injections in an effort to get pregnant. His character re-write ratchets up the competitive craziness that permeates a Big Year: would a real birder choose chasing his nemesis bird, a Snowy Owl, over inseminating his wife during her monthly fertile period? The answer is yes.

Bostick’s rivals are Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) and Brad Harris (Jack Black). These two characters are closer to their real-life counterparts, Al Levantin and Greg Miller. Although the movie somewhat glosses over this detail, Harris is the only one of the triad trying to juggle a full-time job during his North American globe-trotting. In the book, Black’s character’s father is also an avid birder, who shares his son’s ability to identify birds by hearing them. Whereas, in the movie, Black’s father, played by Brian Dennehy, can’t understand the buzz that Jack gets from birding. In one of the movie’s most- touching scenes, Black shares photos of the birds he’s seen with his father, who’s in the hospital recovering from a heart attack. As Black relays a bit of the biology of each species and the rigors of migration—such as the American Golden-Plover’s flight from its Arctic breeding grounds to South America—Dennehy’s face lights up and you see his transformation. We can now count him among the initiated—he understands his son’s obsession.

Again, a re-write has strengthened the narrative arc. Namely, if you are among the minority whose parents had a fascination for birds, congratulations. However, most of us, at one time or another, have struggled to communicate to a spouse or significant other, family or friends, why this communion with the winged ones is so important to us.

The script does an excellent job of translating the lure of birds and birding into a language that the uninitiated can understand. The urge to push beyond fatigue, to discover what lies beyond, and to greet life’s mysteries head-on are embodied in Wilson’s response to his wife about why he wants to do another Big Year: “Hey, Lance Armstrong, what’s the big deal? Or, hey, Columbus, what’s the big deal with that whole New World thing?”

Ultimately, the part of birds’ lives that we find most compelling is their stories: how they raise their young, how they find food during the long winter months. Black’s voice-over about the life history of Sooty Shearwaters is a masterful bit of movie-making. It illuminates for non-birders why seeing a bird is so much more than that. In the case of the shearwater—which breeds on offshore islands in the south Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and spends more than half the year flying over open ocean—to see one is to be enveloped in the passage of the seasons and the spectacle of long-distance, multi-hemisphere migration.  

The trailer for the movie didn’t bode well for the finished product. A migratory Swainson’s Hawk that spends the winter in Argentina…at a snowy Colorado ski resort? And, given the cumulative comedic talents of the three main characters, scenes from the trailer suggested that the hilarity volume would be “cranked up to 11” for the film’s 89 minutes. In reality, Martin, Wilson, and Black, along with a fine supporting cast, give nuanced, thoughtful performances. Which is not to say that comedic scenes are scarce. Martin’s “two wild and crazy guys” swagger from Saturday Night Live makes a brief appearance (although the homage is unlikely to be grasped by anyone under 50).

However, the trailer found its mark by stressing the buddy picture aspect, in order to market a film about competitive birding to a broader audience. Martin and Black team up to try to defeat the current champ, stressing the cooperative aspect of an assault on a Big Year record. A quibble: the holder of the Big Year record often was referred to as “the World’s Best Birder.” As the movie and book make clear, accruing a sizeable bird list is at least partly a function of having a large bank account and an open schedule. Although a Big Year quest is both grueling and entertaining, in reality, many of the world’s best birders work as scientists or as bird guides intent on finding avian riches for their clients.

The film also explores what life is like for spouses left behind. Martin’s wife, played by JoBeth Williams, is a font of support, encouraging him not to defer his dream for another year, instead exhorting him to “Carpe annum” (seize the year). Black’s character, recently divorced, is drawn to fellow birder Ellie, played by Rashida Jones, in a fine performance. Things grow complicated when he learns about her boyfriend, but, in matters of romance, just as in a Big Year quest, hope springs eternal.

The bittersweet nature of a year-long rollercoaster ride is well-portrayed, such as when Wilson’s character, now separated from his wife, eats Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Urging the employees to come keep him company in the otherwise-deserted eatery, he mentions that perhaps he’ll next head for China. “What do you know about Chinese birds?” he asks. Uncomprehending his focus, one of them stammers, “Peking Duck?”  

When the screenplay deviates from Obmascik’s excellent book, I sometimes was prompted to repeat the mantra “This is not a documentary…” In what appears to be Joshua Tree National Park, Black hears and then photographs a Western Tanager. Although I’m not sure what bird call it was, it certainly wasn’t a Western Tanager. One puzzling re-write is how one of the first records for North America of a Great Spotted Woodpecker on Attu, the western-most island in the Aleutian chain, morphed into a bird seen thousands of miles away on the Oregon coast. The bird is compensation for a dazed Wilson after he falls asleep at the wheel and crashes into a tree with his rental car. If a car wreck was all it took to find a near-first record for the continent of a particular species, no vehicle in the vast rental car fleet would be safe!   

Speaking of Attu, the movie’s portrayal of a birder husband and his non-birding wife honeymooning there amid the lack of privacy, leaky Quonset hut, and rats was hysterical. Perhaps there were honeymooners on the island during the time that the real characters were there in 1998, but it was not mentioned in the book. If not, writer/birder Pete Dunne may deserve “an assist” for his fine essay, “Made in Heaven” that covered the same situation.  

Concerns about the considerable carbon footprint of a full-on Big Year effort have spawned a series of similar projects. In summer 2007, Wendy and Malkolm Boothroyd and their teenage son Ken Madsen attempted a Big Year without the use of fossil fuels. They bicycled 13,000 miles, tallying 548 species and raised more than $25,000 for bird conservation. This year, I’ve assisted three friends in their efforts to surpass the Big Year record in our home county. The winner is projected to finish with nearly 340 species, a testament to the avian diversity of Humboldt County, California.   

Within the birding community, much anticipation of the film centered around seeing our comrades portrayed on the big screen, such as character Annie Auklet, who we know as Debi Shearwater.  But even if the players, places, and Big Year strategy are unknown to you, those making the film have succeeded in creating a lively, entertaining chronicle of a year in the life of three intrepid individuals.     

~~~

Tom Leskiw retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. His essays and book reviews have appeared in a variety of journals and are forthcoming in Riverwind, Silent Spring at 50, and Snowy Egret. His monthly column appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.TomLeskiw.com.

 

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