Published Oct 30, 2014You're either on board with Birdman or you're not. If you are, the film plays like a kinetic marvel, ambitious enough to shoot for nothing short of all the technical wizardry and high drama of which the medium is gloriously capable. If you're not on board, you're probably annoyed by what you consider showy, unmotivated filmmaking exhibitionism. As someone raised on the impact of Michael Keaton as Tim Burton's Batman, for my money, Birdman is an epic achievement in storytelling, not merely for its technical ingenuity, but how the film's method helps to tell its timely tale of an aging hero, lost in a viral trending era, swimming to stay relevant even as the word starts losing meaning.
Even for those without nostalgic sentiment for the idea of Michael Keaton's very own No Country For Old Men — a premise that raises the question: Will we all grow to be scandalized by the trends of the future? — Birdman is a brilliantly crafted film that owes as much to theatre as it does to high concept blockbusterism, if not more. Most obviously, this is because Keaton stars as washed-up Riggan Thomson, a former celebrity the world will forever remember from 1992's Birdman and its two sequels. Afraid of losing his legitimacy as a real actor, Thomson opted not to take part in Birdman 4.
Riggan presently finds himself in the nights leading up to the opening of his stage adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a production he both stars in and directs. New to the theatre scene, Riggan is an egoistic triple-threat whose flagrant attempts at reinvention are more than a little dubiously received by co-actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a thespian bred from the truth-is-God methodology of New York theatre. Shiner, a loose cannon with a hunger for perpetual catharsis, takes no pain in reminding Thomson that popularity is prestige's slutty cousin.
Shiner isn't the only one sceptical of Thompson's motives. That Riggan is desperate for high-brow acceptance is an opinion shared by many, including his own assistant/daughter (Emma Stone), and an out for blood, make or break theatre critic, resentful of the celebrity's audacity to confuse his profession with that of a real actor. Most prevalently of all, it's an opinion held by Thomson himself, whose subconscious manifests itself as a living, breathing Birdman, gnawing at his deepest insecurities as the impending doom of his play's opening night steadily approaches.
Much will be written about the decision of director Alejandro González Iñárritu to stage the entire film in one shot. Many will call it a gimmick. Others, more optimistic about the playful use of the artifice, will commend the film's expressionistic claustrophobia for honouring the craft of theatre, where drama unfolds in one shot, far more viscerally than any other approach could. By telling Birdman in what looks like one shot — but is mostly a series of impressively long takes — the film achieves a rising tension that straps you in from the first frame and doesn't let up until the situation has reached its crisis.
As for the technique itself, while it's fun to speculate how certain shots and transitions were executed, viewers would be wise to sit back and embrace magician Iñárritu's stunning cinematic trickery. But all the razzle-dazzle aside, Birdman is a brilliantly acted film, as funny as it is dramatically cathartic in its unprecedented telling of the existential Hollywood nightmare. Somehow, Iñárritu has carved a common stage for theatre to meet Hollywood. And to the certain delight of ballsy filmmaking advocates, especially those '80s kids who have, since Batman, grown to recognize the difference between heroes and regular folk, Birdman soars.