And then a hero comes along
The human within the superhero is brought to fore with both technical and narrative brilliance.
Film and theatre have long become two entirely separate forms of entertainment; so much so, it’s easy to forget that early cinema had much more in common with stage plays than they do with films today. And then, along comes a movie like Birdman, that not only blurs the boundaries between these two art forms, but twists and knots the differences to come up with a piece of work that is as confounding as it is dazzling.
The movie tells the story of actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who shot to stardom playing the superhero Birdman, but is now determined to reinvent himself as a stage actor in a play he is directing and starring in. During the journey leading to the play’s opening, however, Riggan struggles with his ego, his family, his co-stars, and his very sanity, all while the spectre of Birdman hangs both literally and figuratively over him.
In the hands of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who co-wrote the screenplay (with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo), this story is transformed into a bold venture that is brilliant both technically and narrative-wise.
Setting Riggan’s crises around the staging of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the script conflates stage and screen: it’s a play within a film shot like both a play and a film (yes, the very definition of meta).
Combining excellent cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and razor-sharp editing (by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione), the entire film is made to look like one long shot – most scenes were, in fact, shot in long takes – which in itself is an amazing achievement. This effect, accompanied by a jazzy drum score by Antonio Sanchez that mimics stage cues, gives the movie a pulsing, “live” feel.
For instance, one particular scene is a long shot of Riggan running through New York’s Times Square in his underwear as bystanders gape at, film or try to accost him; mind-blowing in its complexity, and genius in the way it creates a sense of immediacy for the audience.
Yet, all this technical prowess needs to be hooked to a solid story for it to succeed, and this is where Birdman really soars. Using the contrasts between Hollywood and Broadway as a theme, this is a deeply affecting story of identity, relationships and validation, of one man’s repeated struggle to discover who he is without having to be defined by someone else.
Even while alternating between drama, comedy, absurdism, and action, Inarritu never loses sight of the story’s core, which is Riggan, and Keaton rises beautifully to the task of bringing this character to life.
The parallels are obvious: Keaton, of course, will always be best known for playing Batman, and this role slyly capitalises on the audience’s prior knowledge of this. Yet, Birdman is also Keaton in top form, in turn hilarious, heart-wrenching and utterly human.
This is an instinctive, authentic performance – not least because much of it was delivered in such long takes – and while one hopes Keaton never went through what Riggan does, the connection he has with the character is the stuff of cinematic magic. Having scored a nomination for Best Actor in the upcoming Oscars, it is entirely possible that Keaton’s Birdman may soon equal his Batman fame.
Surrounding Keaton is an equally excellent cast, who each add an essential layer to the story. Chief among these are Edward Norton as Broadway actor Mike Shiner, and Emma Stone as Sam, Riggan’s daughter and assistant.
Shiner is fantastic as the yin to Riggan’s yang, a self-important method actor who scoffs at Hollywood’s excesses, and yet is wracked with the same self-doubt and insecurity most performers are. Stone, meanwhile, may be playing an edgier variation of her usual roles, but she does it well, holding her own and nailing her exchanges with both Keaton and Norton.
As Birdman shifts from stage to backstage to offstage and back, you never quite know what to expect next, and true to form, the film doesn’t arrive at a neat ending. Instead, it is an ending that brings together performance, reality and the grey areas in between, leaving us to make our own conclusions on what we’ve seen.