The Legend of Pale Male
‘Legend’ doesn’t live up to reality of Pale Male
In “The Legend of Pale Male,’’ hope is the thing with feathers — and a nasty hooked beak, and talons from which dangle a bloody squirrel. A wide-eyed telling of how one red-tailed hawk enraptured a group of New York birders, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and ultimately the entire city, it’s notable for some astounding urban wildlife footage and for the way it unintentionally reflects the giddy narcissism of the primate known as homo sapiens.
The filmmaker, Frederic Lilien, is both the film’s chief asset and its most irritating liability. A footloose Belgian trust-fund kid who fled to New York in 1995, he glimpsed the hawk who would come to be celebrated as Pale Male — one of the earliest red-tails to return to the city and the first to nest in a building rather than a tree — and decided then and there to become a wildlife filmmaker. He thus has 15 years of footage to work with, both of the hawk and the hardy band of humans who gathered around Central Park’s boat pond to watch the bird’s flights and kills.
Lilien’s voice-over, fatuous and self-involved, quickly wears out its welcome. “From the moment we met,’’ he says, “I could see [Pale Male] was something special. God only knows what he saw in me.’’ A momentary distraction from day-to-day survival, perhaps? Where “Legend’’ has real value is in documenting the spiky, sweet-natured eccentrics who were drawn to this winged Rorschach blot: a gangly ex-hippie named Charles Kennedy; a Wall Street Journal writer named Marie Winn (her 1998 book, “Red-Tails in Love,’’ would become a best-seller); Alexander Fisher, an elderly East Side doctor whose terrace provided Lilien with a close-up view.
As the story moves into the new millennium, more and more New Yorkers gather protectively around the bird and its handful of mates and chicks: women in wheelchairs and couples with kids, Park Avenue matrons and rough-edged men from the outer boroughs. To see the expression on a little boy as he peers through a spotting scope and discovers something bigger than a Game Boy is reason enough for this movie to exist.
In December 2004, the co-op board of 927 Fifth Avenue ordered the nest destroyed, and Pale Male’s fans suddenly swelled into the millions. “Legend’’ has the expected street-level footage of the protest across from the building, but it doesn’t do many favors for the protesters. If you feel for the birds and their defenders, shots of Winn running around in a feathered costume are mildly cringe-inducing. But the point was always how Pale Male embodies noble qualities for city dwellers desperate to find them in their own lives: tenacity, uniqueness, adaptability. Like the man said, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, and Pale Male did.
The story hit the news cycle with full force. Conan O’Brien had a puppet Pale Male on as a guest (we see him sit in with Max Weinberg), and Mary Tyler Moore, a resident of 927 Fifth, crossed the picket lines to support the cause. A little ridicule is a wonderful thing: The nest was soon restored (with undergirdings designed by a pricey New York architect), and the hawk returned to rule the roost. Sadly, his chick-siring days appear to be over.
It’s a stirring tale and, as told here, a narrow, overly-anthropomorphized one. (A bombastic score doesn’t help.) The story of wildlife in New York is much bigger than Lilien suggests; as a one-time New Yorker who learned to bird in Central Park, I can state with amazement that everything funnels through there in the spring. Still, what this movie implies about people is quirky and worthwhile. “The Legend of Pale Male’’ is about a lot of things — the lonely romance of bird-watching, the need to project human qualities onto wild animals, the desire to find heroes amid a punishing urban wasteland and to take some of that heroism for oneself. What it’s not about, really, is the bird.