Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


You should see Birdman. In fact, you need to see Birdman. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is something truly special, and were it not for the fact that Boyhood finally saw its release, it would undoubtedly be the most fascinating thing to come out this year (and, really, in recent memory). Every single facet of it can be the start of its own overly-long review. And for that reason, this review is going to be split into two parts. This is the main review, and in the coming days I’ll be following it up with a more analytical (though still generally spoiler free) Review Companion piece.

If you know nothing about Birdman, you should just go see it. Close your laptop, turn off your phone, stop whatever it is you are doing and just get to the nearest theater where it’s playing. Going in blind isn’t really necessary here, but there’s no reason not to either. I went in knowing only that it was not an adaptation of Harvey Birdman (spoiler), and that made it especially fascinating for me. But to be honest, the things that I found fascinating probably won’t be the things you find fascinating. Really, there is so freaking much to talk about in this movie.

So let’s get into it. 

[This film was seen as part of our coverage of the 52nd New York Film Festival. It is being posted to coincide with the film’s limited theatrical release]

BIRDMAN - Official Worldwide Trailer

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Release Date: October 17, 2014 (Limited)
Rating: R 

Let’s get something out of the way: Birdman is not a gimmick. You may have heard about its technical trick on other sites (I will discuss it as vaguely as possible here but at great length in the Companion) and while I would concede that it is a kind of “trick” (it would be literally impossible to do naturally), I will fight anyone who says it’s not executed to near perfection. In practice, this idea doesn’t feel like something to show off; it’s a logical extension of the narrative. In fact, the narrative as presented couldn’t have been as powerfully presented without it. And that’s important, because Birdman is really like nothing else that’s ever been done before. There are films that do something like it, but not at this scale. Not even close.

But being of a larger scale means that there are all the more places for it to have gone wrong. Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (most recently of Gravity fame) worked hard to keep everything grounded even while being fantastical, and it just works. And that is an incredible achievement in and of itself. Nothing I can say about the film can take away from the fact that it succeeds in doing something amazing.

And while that something becomes apparent pretty quickly and you never really forget about (and that Lubezki shot this exposes him as something of a hypocrite), none of that adversely affects your enjoyment of the film. If anything, it enhances it. (Even the hypocrisy.)

The only thing I’ll explicitly say about the camerawork here is that in any given moment, it’s unexpected. There are dozens of times where I expected it to do one thing and I was absolutely delighted by how wrong I often was. Slight digression: Last year, I saw Claire Denis’s not-very-good film Bastards, and at a press conference following the screening someone in the audience asked about the camerawork specifically saying something to the effect of, “I think of the camera like my eye, and I see it as a character. I was wondering what character I was looking through.” Denis’s response shut that entire premise down immediately, and her apparent disdain for the other people in the theater mirrored my own. (Press conferences are often full of bullshit like that. The press conference following Birdman was as well, though that’s a whole other thing.)

But as legitimately stupid as the phrasing of the question was, it does raise a point worth considering, which is the role of the camera in a film. Sometimes the camera is just a camera, but other times it really is another character in the story, even if it’s not an actual, physical entity within the narrative’s world. Lubeski’s camera has a mind of its own, and it follows whatever is most interesting at the time. Oftentimes that’s Michael Keaton’s Thomson, but sometimes it’s Edward Norton or Emma Stone. Other times it goes and looks at other things entirely. (During a particularly interesting moment in the narrative, the camera goes away and sits in an empty hallway for at least ten seconds waiting for something to happen.)

But enough about that. Let’s talk about Birdman.

Michael Keaton in Birdman

Birdman is Batman. Michael Keaton may not be playing “Michael Keaton” (apparently the character is more modeled after Iñárritu himself) but the decision to cast him as Riggan Thomson inextricably links his own exploits to his onscreen persona. (The fact that there are two references that are explicitly Batman references only further cements this fact.) Birdman is a superhero character that Thomson played in the 80s and 90s. He eventually hung up his wings after the 1992 release of Batman Returns Birdman 3 and has been in the shadow of his character ever since. He is known as Birdman, not Thomson, and he wants to change that.

Cue Broadway.

A lot of Hollywood actors have turned to Broadway recently, and Emma Stone (who plays Thomson’s daughter in the film) will actually be hitting the stage herself very soon, and sometimes it feels like they’re doing it just because they’re famous, and not necessarily because they earned that part. (The ludicrously high ticket prices seem to bear that out, though many performances by film actors on stage have demonstrated otherwise, including the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s spectacular turn as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman). Certainly that is the case with Thomson’s adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Thomson wrote the adaptation, directed it, and took the starring role for himself. It’s his big attempt to prove himself, and if it fails he will be ruined. (Or perhaps be forced to don the Birdman suit once again, assuming anyone would want him back.)

But things start to go horribly wrong, as they so often do, and as Thomson is forced to wrestle with making this play a success, he also has to keep his superhero demon at bay. And that internal struggle is where Birdman is most successful. This character is tortured by his past, something that I think pretty much anybody can understand, and it makes watching him writhe all the more heartbreaking.

Emma Stone

At the press conference following the screening, Edward Norton mentioned that some of the film had been screened the day before at New York Comic Con, and that he considered that to be one of the biggest bait-and-switches ever done. Although its protagonist was once a superhero, Birdman is not a superhero film, nor is it a blockbuster of any kind. It’s as introspective as it is funny (side note: it’s very funny), and it is certainly not the kind of film that would sell to the stereotypical Comic Con audience. (I mean, it’s about a man who never wants to put on a rubber suit again. How does that get sold to the tens of thousands of people proudly donning their rubber suits?)

But even if it doesn’t sell to that audience, that audience will appreciate what it does, because it is literally impossible not to. And if someone ever says to me, “Birdman? Meh. Not impressed,” I will never trust a thing they say again, because they are a lying liar who lies. What Birdman accomplishes is truly incredible, both from a technical perspective and a narrative one, and it absolutely deserves to be seen by anyone and everyone. There is nothing in the history of cinema that is quite like it, and I don’t think there ever will be again.