That number may not mean much to you, but in the bird-watching world depicted in The Big Year (a semi-fictional take on a true story), it is sacrosanct. In 2003, we're told, Kenny Bostick spotted 732 different species of birds in the continental United States (including Alaska). It was the biggest "Big Year" in birding history. No one had ever approached those sorts of numbers in the space of a calendar year.
The achievement made for quite the feather to stick in Bostick's short-rimmed fedora. It was a record thought by some to be untouchable. To spot 732 birds in one year meant Bostick had to see more than two species a day. A day! And let me tell you, oriental pratincoles aren't the easiest things to spot.
But records, like eggs, are meant to be broken. And so a few intrepid birders began hatching their own plans to knock Bostick off his lofty perch.
Brad Harris doesn't have any real business chasing a Big Year. Sure, he can identify the calls of hundreds of birds—a remarkable feat, really. But his supervisor thinks Brad's fascination with his feathered friends feels a little half-beaked—er, -baked. And Brad's checking account openly mocks him when he tries to buy plane tickets to chase down birds like the flesh-footed shearwater. But a guy's got to dream, right? So, flying in the face of common sense, he begins his quest to top Bostick's untoppable record of 732 birds … on the cheap.
Stu Preissler's circumstances, in contrast, are much more conducive to serious birding. The Colorado businessman has been feathering his nest for quite some time, and he decides to retire from his company to go for his own Big Year. (It's a big step for this bigwig, relinquishing command of a company he built from the ground up.)
And then there's Bostick himself—proud, preening Bostick who decides to chase another Big Year to break his own record. Never mind the fact that to do so, he'll need to leave his lovely wife behind. And she's none too happy about that.
Yes, chasing a Big Year is a big deal—so big, in fact, that it nearly turns the genteel world of birding into a contact sport. But for what prize? There's no money at stake for the winner. No lucrative birdseed endorsements.
No, birders are driven by that age-old motive: pride. And in the name of naming the most birds, competitors will do almost anything to spy more avians than their adversaries.
And when the stakes are this high, of course, there's always the potential for … fowl play.
First, let's raise our wings in salute to The Big Year's fictional competitors. You can mock their obsession; you can take issue with their sometimes duplicitous means. But their love of birding, their dedication to the "sport" and their honesty (eventually) in the midst of the competition makes them, in their own way, laudable.
That said, the film also shows dedication's dark side. Both Bostick and Brad are divorced. Bostick, it's suggested, has had several wives, and these men's hobby is stated as a reason why their previous relationships didn't work. Watch and be warned, The Big Year seems to be saying as it illustrates how perseverance can get out of hand. A healthy pastime, we see, can molt into a dangerous obsession—one that requires unhealthy relational sacrifices.
Stu and Bostick are the two sides to this coin. When Stu launches into his Big Year, he goes with his wife's blessing—so much so that she practically pushes him out the door. Yes, she'll miss him. But she knows he's been dreaming about this moment for years, and she doesn't want to get in the way of his "greatest passion." "Well," Stu says, hugging her, "not my greatest passion."
Bostick's wife, Jessica, on the other hand, is more concerned about the cost of her hubby's desire to go out and top himself again. For Bostick, this isn't a once-in-a-lifetime dream, it's a repetitive compulsion. Jessica longs to start a family and wants her husband to settle down and become a real, engaged part of it. But Bostick's passion for birding proves to be too great. "Nobody remembers who comes in second!" he tells Jessica. "I know," she says sadly, already No. 2 in Bostick's world. "I know."
In the end, two of the film's three birders make birding a part of their lives without allowing it to consume their entire lives. The pastime becomes a tool to connect with family—not a distraction from it. "He got more birds," one says at the end, speaking about a competitor, "but we got more … everything."
When Stu backs out of a business meeting to chase a bird-bearing storm, his associates ask what they should tell everyone. Stu says they should say that an "act of God" prevented him from coming. Elsewhere, the birders repeatedly evince a sense of awestruck wonder at the beauty of creation. And when Bostick and another birder crash a car into a tree and serendipitously spy a rare woodpecker, one of them marvels, "It's like we were meant to crash here!"
Bostick and Jessica start to make out in their bedroom. Wearing a flimsy nightie, Jessica's shown straddling Bostick ... before their sensual interlude gets cut short when Bostick hears a TV story about the storm that could force tons of rare birds into the country.
A misunderstanding makes Bostick think Jessica is cheating on him with a contractor. And it's the final straw for their marriage. Jessica solemnly tells Bostick that she loves him, but that she can't be his wife anymore—not when she's always playing second fiddle to the birds.
The three birders watch the spectacular mating ritual of two bald eagles, which includes the birds grasping claws and cartwheeling through the air together. "I miss Edith," Stu says while watching the aerial courtship. Brad has a crush on a fellow birder named Ellie, and they make plans to spend a weekend together.
A few double entendres involve birds with unintentionally suggestive names.
Bostick and a fellow birder are involved in a car crash after Bostick falls asleep at the wheel. ("I think I broke my arm!" the other birder says.) Brad tumbles off some rocks. Stu and Brad chase a rare bird in a helicopter and nearly collide with a mountain. We endure jarring turbulence on a plane flight. Two skiers run into each other. Stu breaks a ceramic garden gnome. A woman is attacked by birds while she's carrying a scarf drenched in fish oil. We see dead fish being cut up and pictures of bird carcasses. Stu discusses a particular bird's violent habits.
Crude or Profane Language
Bostick gives a pair of birders an obscene hand gesture. Characters say the s-word once and warble out a few other profanities, including "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑" and "p---." God's name is misused a half-dozen times (once with "d‑‑n").
Drug and Alcohol Content
Brad, Stu and Bostick drink wine, whiskey, brandy and beer. During a fancy dinner it's suggested that Brad drinks too much (though he doesn't appear to be inebriated). We see Jessica inject fertility shots into the top part of her rump.
Other Negative Elements
Big Year players repeatedly lie, deceive and attempt to mislead their opponents. Through the power of suggestion, Bostick makes Stu seasick. We hear talk about bird poop and see it cover a car. Brad maxes out seven credit cards during his Big Year quest—including his mother's.
Previews for The Big Year might lead you to believe that the movie's little more than a bird-brained farce—Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with plumage. But even with its smattering of profanity and alcohol-infused scenes, it's actually kinder and gentler than that. And it's a great deal more redemptive as it wrestles with the importance of pursuing your dreams … and ponders the relational cost of doing so.
Admittedly, we at Plugged In lean toward the side of caution when it comes to these drop-everything-and-do-what-you-want-to-do movies. Sometimes when we chase down our own dreams, after all, we lose sight of God's dream for us. And those closest to us can pay the biggest price—as the film aptly illustrates.
On the surface, a movie about birding seems tailor-made for exactly this kind of criticism. I mean, come on: Wasting a year of your life chasing birds? Really? Not feeding orphans in Africa? It's easy to respond exactly like Brad's grumpy old dad, who believes his son should punt the bird-watching obsession and get a real job, a real life. In short, make something of himself.
But here's the interesting thing. Slowly, cautiously, Brad's father comes around. Brad shows him pictures of his birds, telling stories about them. They go walking in the forest to track down an elusive owl. "I want to get a look at it," the father says. And when he spots the bird first, he and Brad laugh and embrace.
In the end, The Big Year rightly suggests that dreams—even extravagant, illogical dreams—are sometimes worth pursuing, especially when you can share your dreams with the people around you. Edith, for example, exhorts Stu to go out and track down his birds. "Carpe annum," she tells him: Seize the year.
It's OK to want to fly, this film tells us. But as any bird knows, it's best to fly together.