By: Daniel Reynolds
So you’re a director named Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Your award-nominated films are renowned as heavy, moody and well-composed experiences. Perhaps you’ve grown weary of the unending string of superhero movies and the corporate facts of life over at Marvel and DC. If you saw Hancock or Watchmen you probably didn’t trust them to go far enough with their explosions of the form. What’s more, you probably think that the voice of art, the power of film, is being buried under an avalanche of tweets about the new Avengers trailer. You figure there must be a way to address both issues – the temporal nature of meaningful, personal art and its destruction by shiny commerce. When in doubt you, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, say to yourself: we can do better. And then you create a new kind of hero in a daring rebuke called Birdman or (The Unintended Virtue of Ignorance).
At its center, Birdman is about burned-out actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his aging desire for artistic relevance. By virtue of his role as Birdman in a series of fictional super hero movies, Riggan is still counted as a celebrity. His problem is that he’s no longer having much success as a real thespian. Riggan’s plan for a comeback is to write, direct and star in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. At the start of the film Riggan is preparing the last few days of rehearsals before his big opening night. Naturally, all the things that can go wrong are lining up like gawking autograph-seekers to greet him.
Riggan’s world, which consists of no more than a couple of mid-town NYC blocks around his theatre, is predominately populated by the various women in his life: lead stage actress Lesley (Naomi Watts, labouring valiantly as usual), current girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough, glowing), ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan, in an understated and brief role) and troubled daughter/personal assistant Sam (Emma Stone, looking gaunt and projecting tough). His world is buttressed and enabled by his friend and manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis, playing snippy and overworked) and it falls under attack by the presence of the talented actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, on blast), newly added to the play’s retinue. The women (and Jake) have lives hinted at outside the realm of the theatre, but they largely exist to serve the narrative arc of Riggan. Only Mike challenges our hero’s ego in any meaningful way. And make no mistake, it is ego that drives Birdman.
As I’ve described it, Birdman reads straight forward. It’s a movie about a man on the comeback trail, piecing together his personal life, seeking salvation through the healing power of his work, fending off rivals or calamities or both; this is hardly groundbreaking. But, remember, you are Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and you will push for something special. For Birdman, you settle on meta. You start with a stage play that features a pathetic man desperate for love. You build in an actor that is trying to prove he can still act, that he can still matter. He is fake famous for playing a fictional super hero. That’s funny, right? Then you cast an actual famous actor who became actually famous for playing a real fictional super hero. Now your film suddenly reverberates outwardly into something different. Suddenly the emotion feels extra real even when said actor’s (Riggan’s) inner voice starts speaking in darkly soothing tones. On one level we hear the silly voice of Birdman, on another we hear the voice of every troubled id looking for a second chance, no matter how many bad decisions stand in the way. By the time anyone can notice that Edward Norton – who had his own brush with comic book stardom – is playing a prickly but supremely talented actor, while he himself is a prickly but supremely talented actor, Birdman has already taken off.
The audience can think about this, or they can follow the movement of the camera. As Inarritu, you decide to film Birdman in what appears as one long take. The camera turns on and then drifts around the theatre, the dressing rooms, the offices, onto Broadway and back again. Surely the audience will be amazed; what a feat of filmmaking! But then, there are more layers. You are making a film about the difficulty of artistic endeavour, the risk associated with it and the inevitable costs that are accrued (even in success). Keaton’s Riggan has strained relationships with everyone, his desire to matter becomes his sole guiding principle. So, as Inarritu, you flaunt your talent. You say to Hitchcock and Welles, and even your buddy Alfonso: you thought those were good track shots? Here, look at these. Out of ego you create something that sticks, complete with a punchy jazz drum score and an eventual Oscar nomination for Keaton (and maybe even Norton). A huge beautiful bird shows up. You make a super hero movie that draws from the allure and power of its iconography while trashing the frame of its useless, damaging fame.
Now your story is flapping along under its own power with Keaton, as both Batman and Joker, alternatively wild-eyed and sad, leading the way. You know people will hate some of your creative decisions, but you make them anyway. Let the critics have their chance, what power do they have anymore anyway? You have something to say about that too. In your film, the power is revealed to really rest in the viral idea, the weird video, the funny tweet. And everyone really does just want to watch the latest comic book blockbuster. So you’ve done it. You’ve folded the idea of art-killing technology into a film about superhero monopolies spliced with a story about an artist grasping for love that he lost as a result of his celebrity. All of this is why Birdman, through the meta layers and massive ego – to say nothing of its ungainly title – ultimately succeeds. Its true central idea matches that of its hero; like Riggan, you, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, have the unceasing belief that when Birdman leaps from a great height it will simply soar high and fly away.