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 its 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 overextended 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 through the studio system (particularly a studio owned at the 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 actor or live in Hollywood to understand how this affects the psyche.