As the biggest winner of last year’s Oscars, Birdman is a film that should automatically on any film aficionado’s must-watch list. But even apart from that I knew I wanted to watch it because it’s basically Michael Keaton playing a version of himself as a washed-up actor famous only for playing a superhero more than twenty years ago. Now that I’ve watched it, I’m glad to report that this is one of the rare occasions when the Academy pick for Best Film is absolutely the correct one.
Most of the film is set in the theater where Keaton’s Riggan Thomas is staging a play that he hopes will breathe new life into his stalled career and also establish himself as a credible actor instead of just a celebrity. To succeed, he needs to grapple nor only with a talented and experienced co-actor who threatens to upstage him, an influential critic who is determined to ruin his play because she thinks he’s not a real actor and a myriad of other problems but also with a secret, inner demon. For when he is alone and the stress gets to him, Birdman the character that he became famous for so long ago, speaks to him and makes him believe that he has superpowers.
The first thing that awes everyone about this film is how it appears to be shot entirely in one single take. A moment’s reflection suffices to make one realize that this can’t possibly be true. Indeed the film goes out of its way to show off impossible camera movements that demonstrate how CGI must have been used to conceal transitions. Still that the effect is dramatically powerful is undeniable. It conveys a unique sense of truthfulness to what we see. My wife commented on how exhausting it is to watch, since there are no scene breaks that act as natural places to pause for a breather. The energy level across the whole film stays at a constantly high level. Everything feels important and in the moment.
Technically, it’s still a stupendous achievement even with the use of illusory cuts. The way the film flows meant that director Alejandro González Iñárritu couldn’t rearrange scenes or possibly even do much editing at all. Edward Norton who plays the acclaimed but conceited actor Mike Shiner commented that this forced everyone to rehearse endlessly and always be at their very best. Indeed, I think that the superb quality of the acting and the casting here outshines even the gimmick of the film being shot in a single take. Riggan is the role that Keaton seems to be born to play and it’s hard to believe that the project was conceived before he got involved. Apparently the first time Keaton met with Iñárritu he asked that the director if he was making fun of him.
I pretty much love both Norton and Naomi Watts in whatever movie they appear in so their interactions in Birdman were pure delight for me. I found their sex scene on stage to be hilarious and laughed out loud at it. Equally wonderful is the way that Norton’s character constantly challenges Keaton’s character during their first reading, yet maintains a perfectly cordial tone throughout. Plus of course who can forget that awesome scene of Keaton strutting through the streets of New York in his underwear. This is why I found Birdman to be a consistently funny and entertaining watch.
I’m less enamored of the film’s central theme since it appears to want to have the cake and eat it too. While it’s understandable that Riggan is torn between wanting to have artistic legitimacy and being popular, he doesn’t endear himself to the audience for it and indeed he’s not a very sympathetic character at all. I’m especially disappointed with the film’s ending which appears to give everything that he’d ever wanted. I tend to favor the interpretation that say that he really did manage to kill himself on stage and it’s all a dream after that. It’s only the way to make sense of the stupid final shot when the rest of the film prior to that point is pretty unambiguous in stating that Birdman exists purely in his delusional mind.
A comparison that I think would be interesting to make is to The Artist, which swept the Oscars in 2012. I thought that it was an okay film but having it win so many awards seemed to me like the Academy masturbating to itself. Like The Artist, Birdman is also a film that is about cinema, and even more specifically about acting and the Hollywood actor’s plight, as silly as that sounds. But while The Artist struck me as being an incredibly self-indulgent love-letter to the past, Birdman is sufficiently creative, entertaining in the modern sense and forward-looking to genuinely earn the plaudits it has garnered. For the same reasons that The Artists just had to win the Oscars in 2012, Birdman just had to win them this year. But in this case, while I can’t agree that it’s the best 2014 film that I’ve watched, I can think of no other film that fits the Oscars so well.