Film Review: The Legend of Pale Male

Belgian filmmaker Frederic Lilien’s documentary about a red-tailed hawk that set up housekeeping on tony Fifth Avenue is equal parts nature documentary and group portrait of jaded urbanites enthralled by a glimpse of the wild.

Frederic Lilien knew what he didn’t want to do with his life: go to law school and join his family’s firm in Belgium. He fled to New York and, having no idea what he did want to do, he drifted through a series of temporary  jobs—messenger, travel agent, receptionist, beauty salon manager—before his purpose found him. While eating lunch in Central Park, he was startled to see a hawk perched on a tree limb, devouring a pigeon.

Stunned by the sight of primal wildness in the middle of a city park, Lilien decided to make a documentary despite his complete lack of filmmaking experience, quickly discovering that the hawk—the first known to have established itself in Manhattan—already had a small but devoted group of followers. The project eventually came to dominate 18 years of his life.

Lilien fell in with a loose-knit community of bird watchers, nature lovers, misfits and ordinary New Yorkers equally enchanted by the hawk dubbed “Pale Male” for his atypically subdued coloring. They included professional wildlife photographer Charles Kennedy; Wall Street Journal writer Marie Winn, whose 1999 book Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park helped make Pale Male an international celebrity; the wheelchair-bound Jeanine Len; loner Lincoln Kareem, a video engineer who emerged from his shell in the company of fellow hawk watchers and founded the website; and retired doctor Alexander Fisher, who lived near Pale Male’s 927 Fifth Avenue roost and opened his terrace to the hardcore hawk watchers.

The Legend of Pale Male has its dramas: The hawk finds a mate (unimaginatively named “First Love” by the watchers) and they build a nest, ironically secured by rows of metal spikes installed to deter roosting pigeons. First Love succumbs to poison, and is replaced by a succession of lady hawks dubbed Chocolate, Blue and Lola. The 927 Fifth Avenue condo board has the nest destroyed, sparking days of protests and media coverage that force them to relent—they even hire an architect to construct a metal frame on which the birds could build a new, more secure home. Fuzzy, ungainly chicks are hatched and mature into handsome raptors who fly off to establish their own territories, colonizing Fordham University's Bronx campus, the shoulders of a statue carved onto the façade of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and various cemeteries, bridges and even the occasional tree.

The film has celebrity cameos, notably Woody Allen—on whose balcony Pale Male often perched before establishing his permanent home—and Mary Tyler Moore, a 927 Fifth Avenue resident who defied her building’s board by supporting the protesters.

The Legend of Pale Male is a haphazard piece of filmmaking, weighted down by too many shots of awestruck New Yorkers waxing rhapsodic and by Lilien’s nonstop narration. Granted, English isn’t his first language, but he’s totally mastered the art of a finding a hoary cliché for every occasion—Kennedy, for example, doesn’t just become Lilien’s mentor, he takes Lilien “under his wing.” But Lilien’s footage of Pale Male goes a long way to compensating for those flaws: The sight of a hawk flipping itself in mid-air and doing a dead drop into a flock of flying pigeons, emerging with lunch clutched in its claws, would be truly breathtaking even if it weren’t taking place against the incongruous backdrop of streetlights and building façades.