Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)
US (2014) Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
This meta satire on the fame game was the big winner at this year’s Oscars, including bagging the Best Film award. It’s a modestly budgeted affair which recouped its expenditure six times over yet was hardly a blockbuster, and follows an unconventional narrative, arguably atypical of the sort of film to garner such lofty Oscar praise.
So, what is it about a film that essentially is mocking the cult of celebrity and the pretentions of the acting world that has earned such adulation? Quite a number of things, truth be told, but what makes it work so well is presumably down to the fact that director Alejandro González Iñárritu, while no stranger to Hollywood, is able to view it from a different perspective.
The story is simple, echoing Billy Wilder’s seminal Hollywood satire Sunset Boulevard, in that the central character is a washed up actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) trying to reclaim his former glory. For his comeback Riggan is staging a Broadway play of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, based on the short story by Raymond Carver. However Riggan is forever known for playing the title role in the superhero film series of Birdman, which not only haunts him professionally but now personally too.
Iñárritu is known for his elliptical dramas such as Amores perros and Babel, or the intense social commentary of Biutiful so this comedy marks a departure for him but it is one he embraces and attacks with great vigour. Having already worked in Hollywood for his film 21 Grams Iñárritu already has an idea of how the film business works in Tinsel Town, and while he would have made Birdman in his native Mexico but the satire wouldn’t have been so rich.
The first thing to strike the viewer is how everything appears to have been captured in one continuous shot; this isn’t strictly true due to the time jumps but it is shot in long, single takes. This technique not only is visually engaging but it takes us directly into the heart of every situation and incident that occurs in the film. Unlike Hitchcock’s Rope which was filmed under similar circumstances, the camera is far more active here, moving about freely, circling the actors to create a sense of spatial awareness or converses claustrophobia.
It is a testament to the editing team that we cannot spot where the film has been cut, with necessary technical transitions often employed to serve as a distraction when time has passed. Only for a brief moment near the end is this method broken and it is quite jarring after 100 minutes of single shot imagery. It was reportedly a huge task for the cast to get such protracted scenes correct, requiring multiple takes from the top, but they all commit themselves to helping Iñárritu realise his vision.
The actual story is more a series of incidents revolving around Riggan, the people around him and the play. His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is a recovering drug addict working as his PA yet is resentful towards her father for his absence during her life. The two need to reconnect but their generational attitudes becomes a huge barrier to overcome. Trying to keep Riggan on the straight and narrow is his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) who does all the worrying backstage.
Disaster strikes early when one of the cast is injured by a falling light and his last minute replacement is noted but brash stage actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), whose arrogance and intense “method acting” not only irritates everyone but threatens to ruin everything, even when on stage. His tenet is to always be truthful, so he thinks nothing of breaking character to lambast a crowd member of even his fellow cast, which includes insecure Broadway debutants Lesley Truman (Naomi Watts) – Mike’s ex-girlfriend – and Laura Aulburn (Andrea Riseborough), Riggan’s current squeeze.
Every one of these combustible elements make the Birdman voice inside Riggan’s head become louder and more insistent, leading to his journey towards self-destruction a occur lot quicker. Meanwhile the added pressure of critics’ approval – a noted enemy waiting with her sharpened pen is Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) – weighs heavy on everyone’s minds, except for Mike who claims to not care, but manipulates interviews to ensure he is praised.
This is where the satire bites the deepest, with Iñárritu forcing the issue of why people get into acting or entertainment and who the truly thick skinned are when the reviews come out. He manages to belittle the impact of the critic by over emphasising its importance to the artists, which either went over some heads or the praise this film received was by way of avoiding further scorn!
Whether one gets the satire or recognises the ironies and meta-references, no-one can deny the strength of the performances given by the ensemble cast. Michel Keaton lost to Eddie Redmayne for the Best Actor Oscar but it was a close call – his performance here is a masterclass in complete immersion in a role, total commitment to every aspect and nuance of the character and the willingness to put his dignity on the line when necessary.
Everyone contributes to the film’s success with their accurate and precise essaying under the single shot remit, with Keaton obviously featured the most, sometimes in dual roles. Edward Norton is almost too realistic as the obnoxious thespian Mike, his actions bordering on parody, while Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough offer competent female support. I’ve never been a fan of Emma Stone but I must say she rose to the challenge of the role of Sam, which breaks away from that of her mainstream work.
Had an American director made this film I doubt it would have been as rich with its trenchant observations and seamless ability to mix hallucinatory fantasy with equally absurd reality. Birdman soars high as joyous and scathing antidote to the banality of Hollywood’s current remake/reboot mentality.