Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough
Artistic satisfaction cannot have a broad definition, as it has different meanings for each individual artist in their journeys. In the film landscape, some actors find satisfaction with blockbusters, while others enjoy the more human and personal independent scene. Different strokes, but finding that individual satisfaction brings its challenges as seen through the kinetic and continuous Birdman.
After rising to fame portraying the superhero Birdman in the 1990s, Riggan (Michael Keaton) hopes to be taken seriously as an actor by directing, writing, and starring in a Broadway production. In trying to accomplish this, he must contend with the people around him, the different issues that arise, and the inner Birdman voice that continually haunts him.
With its cacophony of noise and human disruption, Birdman certainly has plenty on its mind about the state of art and the role of the artist. A film I first saw on my laptop in college, which then pulled me into the chaos that would ensue when one man tries to put on a production while navigating egos and financial limitations. Shot to appear mostly to be one continuous take, the camera follows Riggan and switches to other characters, which puts the camera and the audience as bystanders along for the ride of everything that occurs in the story. At many points, it feels like we struggle to keep up with everything happening, which did not allow me to catch my breath at many points.. Obviously, the film was not shot in one continuous take, but the illusion creates a snappy and endless foray of this production.
The story surrounds the progression of Riggan in his attempts to gain some sort of notoriety after making his name in the superhero genre. The inner-dialogue and contextual arguments held with this character fit the zeitgeist of superhero flicks dominating the box office and the entertainment world overall. Riggan wants to burst that bubble he found himself in to complete more meaningful work in his mind. It creates an interesting divide from folks who wish to move past that phase in their lives and those relishing in it. Casting Michael Keaton in the role fits the mold perfectly with his portrayal of the caped crusader in 1989’s Batman. His work in that film and the subsequent sequel gave him a different style of recognition he seemingly has not returned to in his career. It produces a similarity between Keaton and Riggan that only makes the story richer.
Riggan finds no satisfaction in returning to the superhero genre despite the money and fame that it would afford him in life. It parallels Keaton but also the opposite of someone like Robert Downey Jr., who has no interest to return to making smaller films after reaping the rewards of portraying Iron Man. This career choice turns him to Broadway, where he hopes to create something of substance, which will, in turn, satisfy him and help him gain the respect of other artists and critics.
Rounding out the cast are a set of enablers and those who challenge Riggan’s approach to this quest for artistic satisfaction. There’s Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s best friend, lawyer, and producer of the play. He has all of the stress of trying to bring Riggan down to reality amid everything happening around him. You can just feel through the performance of Galifianakis that he’s not getting much sleep and just wants to help his friend put together this play. There’s Sam (Emma Stone), who’s Riggan’s drug-addicted daughter hired on as an assistant in an effort to reconnect with her father. She, more than anyone else, serves as a vessel to put Riggan in his place during this journey as she cuts through the nonsense to tell him the honest truth. Then you have the most adversarial of them all in Mike (Edward Norton), a method actor starring with Riggan in this play. Similarly to Keaton, Norton’s character in a way represents the actor portraying him either in personality or reputation. Each of these characters tries to quell or expand the flame that will eventually consume them all if this play does not land as a hit.
As hard-hitting as the story feels as it progresses, it has its themes at its center, which display some anger at the world. Co-writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, crafts this feature to exquisite detail. He’s one of the great Latinx directors working today and he always puts together hard-hitting films unquestionably made through his brilliant mind. Whether it be his beginnings in Amores Perros to his Hollywood features like this and The Revenant, he always seeks to bring something new to his features. With Birdman, he plays with the structure of having it appear to be one continuous take while also ramping up the tension with Antonio Sánchez’s percussion score. This particular score ramps up the intensity of each interaction as we get closer to the first showing of the play.
Each character in the film has a moment to shine, but they all play into Riggan’s story, which mostly occurs in his inner dialogue with the Birdman. He’s pushed and pulled in various directions before he bursts and explodes on others. It demonstrates the fragility of this line of work and how hard it can be for criticism to permeate one’s mind. Something exemplified when Riggan has a conversation with a theater critic, who outright tells him about her feelings on him performing a play on Broadway. This interaction creates a moment of catharsis for Riggan, but may also apply to the thinking of Iñárritu and how it feels to be critiqued as an artist.
Birdman contains plenty of rich thematic elements that fly around the character of Riggan, all held together in a narrative that never stops and forces you along for the ride. It’s truly exemplary work by Michael Keaton, as he explores the struggles and pain of Riggan as he hopes to be taken seriously as an actor. Iñárritu does it again and with style, delivering his greatest work and justly receiving the accolades for his effort.