Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a palate cleanser that clears away the taste of over processed, generic Hollywood products. There’s a freshness to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2015 film that’s zesty and light, but there’s also a tremendous depth to it. You’re pulled into it, transfixed by it’s majestic wonder, dazzled by the camera work and hypnotised by the performances. Birdman is more than a movie – it’s a cinematic mission statement, showing us everything that is wrong with movies today. It lets us know what cinema could be… and what it should be.
Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomson, an actor famous for starring in a superhero trilogy in the ‘90s. Thomson is now risking everything on adapting Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for the Broadway stage. He’s over extended in every way (emotionally, financially and artistically) and he’s put himself under tremendous pressure, hoping that he can recapture his integrity. Thomson is finding it difficult to bring the play together and his problems are exacerbated by his relationships with those around him. He must keep his daughter/assistant (Emma Stone) sober; his co-star and lover (Andrea Riseborough) is unhappy with how their relationship is going and the latest addition to his cast (Edward Norton) is an egotistical perfectionist who is taking the focus away from Thomson’s attempt and resuscitating his own career.
How Iñárritu managed to squeeze the film though the studio system (particularly a studio owned at time by Rupert Murdoch) is anybody’s guess. Iñárritu takes multiple potshots at the blockbuster mentality of film, showing how superheroes have infiltrated cinema and squeezed out anything which challenges audiences. True artists struggle to produce something meaningful in a climate where explosions and destruction are the order of the day. It’s a high energy piece that scores high on technical credits and which also has first-rate performances from an impressive cast (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone).
Birdman is much more than an inside look at Hollywood, however the story resonates way beyond that. It’s about the human struggle to stay relevant, to feel that you’ve achieved something in your life – when you stand back and evaluate what you have achieved and realise that it doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. You don’t have to be an an actor or live in Hollywood to understand how this affects the psyche.
Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is an actor unhappy that his career has been overshadowed by Birdman, the comic-book character he played in a trilogy of movies in 1980s and 1990s. Thomson declined the opportunity to star in a fourth instalment because he was worried that the character would over-shadow his career. A quarter of a century later and the Birdman still looms large over Thomson and he’s struggling to be taken seriously as an actor. This is even more cutting because Thomson now sees actors like Robert Downey Jr embracing the genre and earning huge sums of money. Thomson has adapted the Raymond Carver story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for the stage, directing and starring-in the production. He’s put his own money into the play and he’s banking on its critical and financial success to reignite his career and validate his work as an artist.
The line between reality and fiction in Birdman is blurred. Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomson and Riggan Thomson is Michael Keaton. I don’t mean this in a literal sense. Thomson has much more ego than Keaton and the character seems to have a strong dedication in wanting to stay relevant to audiences. Keaton on the other-hand has always seemed to have chosen his career path on roles that interested him, rather than for their box office potential. However, the career baggage that Keaton brings to the role means that we don’t need to be told back story. Like Thomson did with Birdman, Keaton walked away from the Batman franchise at its height and in a way, both their careers never recovered from being associated with their characters. While Keaton seemed happy with slipping from the limelight, Thomson fights to stay relevant in a world that now only cares about superheroes. Deep down he knows the easiest way to make his comeback is to return to Birdman once more.
This is a career defining performance for Keaton. It’s a brave role for the actor to take on, but roles like this come along once in a career. It is not a glamorous role. Keaton exposes himself on an emotional and physical level, giving everything to the character. The unflinching camera work shows every wrinkle, crease and crevice on Keaton’s face. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera captures the reality, not the glamour of being an actor. This is the culmination of Keaton’s life and career on screen and it’s difficult to imagine who else could portray the fear, the anger, the sadness and insanity of the role. There are enough former superhero actors out there who would love a role like this to reignite their careers, but none could capture and channel the intensity like Keaton.
The parallels between Keaton and Thomson are obvious yet superficial and it would be easy (and lazy) to say that he’s just playing himself. The actor is superb, delivering the performance of his career in Iñárritu’s film. He hits a range of acting notes that few could achieve in short notice. He is able to turn from comedy to drama in an instant without ever making it obvious that he’s acting. Lesser actors would have made the character a comedic buffoon who sees his world crumble around him or made him too serious, a man with one singular obsession that neglects his family and ignores those around him. Keaton covers a range of emotions and makes Thomson a fully rounded character. He makes him human.
Ego is the central concept of Birdman. Thomson’s ego is driving him to stage the play – he’s setup his own downfall. He’s wealthy enough not to need to work but he wants to create something that people will like. He wants to be applauded and lauded and he’s risked everything to achieve this. The Birdman speaks to Thomson and it urges him to turn his back on art and run straight into the arms of commercialism. Thomson struggles with this, after all, as Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner states, ’popularity Is the slutty cousin of prestige’.
Iñárritu’s film isn’t a comedy or a drama – it’s a reality piece fused with fantasy. The director doesn’t pull any punches on what is wrong with Hollywood today. The whole piece is a criticism of the plethora of superhero movies being churned out by studios on an almost monthly basis. When Thomson wants a new actor for the play, he’s told that his first choices (Marvel movie stars Robert Downey Jr and Michael Fassbender) are too busy making superhero sequels. The irony is that Thomson’s superhero past still haunts him, even though it’s been decades since he played the character. Birdman (much like Keaton’s own Batman) existed in a time before comic book adaptations littered the multiplexes and the actor originally left the role to avoid being type cast in a time when superhero sequels were seen as unnecessary, rather than the cornerstone of the movie industry that they are today. Actors like Downey Jr and Fassbender aren’t hindered by their superhero roles but are embraced for them. We live in a time where nearly every actor has a large franchise to fall back on when the box office gets rough.
Like Keaton, Edward Norton plays on his persona as the difficult actor striving for perfection. Norton’s star never shone as bright as his talent due to his reputation for fighting with studios and filmmakers and this is tackled head-on in Birdman (‘was he fired or did he quit?’). Again, like Keaton, Norton dabbled in the superhero realm with The Hulk, dropping the character (or was fired) after just one movie. Norton’s Mike Shiner knows that there’s a younger generation out there ready to replace him (‘what are you going to do, replace me with Ryan Gosling?’), again illustrating that youth and fame are fleeting.
Antonio Sánchez’s jazzed infused score adds an energy. Birdman is cinematic jazz and Sánchez’s score is the erratic heartbeat keeping it alive. It’s as unconventional as the film it accompanies, but the eccentric percussion mirrors Riggan Thomson’s frame of mind – he’s on edge, jittery and intense. Editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione tackle the film in an unconventional way and Birdman flows as if it’s in one continuous take. This seems like an odd choice as the film takes place over several days, but illustrates the constant pressure that Keaton’s character is under; a stream of consciousness as fantasy and reality converge.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a deeply rich film that challenges audience expectations and genre conventions. It’s a drama, a comedy and a tragedy that tackles concepts like art, creativity, belief and fear. Above all however it’s about wanting to be loved – but what do we talk about when we talk about love?