They needn’t have worried. There are certainly secondary characters in The Big Year who think birding is stupid, and you can’t blame them when these competing birders toss aside important business meetings and even one marriage when a rare bird is at stake. But the birders in The Big Year are unapologetic about their passion. To them, the joy of birding and the urge to break the record for the most birds seen in North America in a single year is as fundamental as is James Lovell’s yearning to reach the moon in Apollo 13 or the passion for fine wine by the characters in the movie Sideways.
Birds and birding are integral to the movie, but the themes of the movie are more about passion and competition, the weird kinds of bonds that draw even heated contenders together, and what things are or are not worth sacrificing to reach a goal.
From the moment The Big Year starts, on New Year’s Day with Owen Wilson’s character in a remote park in Arizona to see a hard-to-get rarity, a Nutting’s Flycatcher, I was totally engaged in the movie. Steve Martin’s character celebrates a more family-oriented New Years, with toasts at midnight and then a family skiing outing, though he does stop a few times to add some birds to his year list. Jack Black’s character was stuck at work, and he only got a single bird out the window of his downtown office.
As with the real men who inspired the movie characters, Steve Martin’s and Owen Wilson’s characters were very wealthy, and Jack Black’s had very little money and was just getting over a painful divorce. You quickly discern that it takes a lot of money to do a Big Year, and that some birders are as cutthroat as some contenders in sports. When a very rare tropical hummingbird turns up at a backyard feeder, Steve Martin gets there first and dutifully rings the doorbell and patiently waits for the homeowner to give him a key to her gate, politely submitting to a minute of chit chat, while Owen Wilson simply jumps over her fence and is in and out while Martin is still stuck at the door. A great many birders in the film are deeply resentful of Wilson’s character for how cutthroat he is in competition. But he is rather like the New York Yankees—he has way more money than most birders, makes the most of it, and can make life hell for some birders, yet despite their resentment, they can’t help but be regaled by his amazing experiences and give him plenty of begrudging respect along with resentment and even hatred.
The movie has some beautiful and touching moments. All three contenders stop, spellbound, gazing as courting Bald Eagles clasp talons in their aerial dance. And the movie has the sweetest scene involving a Great Gray Owl that I could imagine, though the owl moves more like an animatronic rather than a real flesh-and-blood owl.
The movie ends with photos of birds in rapid fire to the accompaniment of the song “This Could All Be Yours”—as lovely an invitation to start birding as I could imagine. The Big Year is a splendid movie for birders, and based on comments of non-birders I’ve talked to who saw it, plenty fun for regular people, too.