Film Review: Birdman [Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance] (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, 2014)

Hello, I’m Daniel, and welcome to The Cinematic Sense, the film blog that reviews and analyses the art of cinema. This time, we’re looking at the Oscar winning film from Alejandro G Iñárritu, Birdman…

In my last review, I looked at 1917, Sam Mendes’ new film set during World War I and based around the gimmick of several long takes edited discreetly to look like it was filmed in one shot. After seeing 1917, I began to think about the other films that have used this technique and after a while, one film stood out clearly in my head. That film was Birdman [Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance], the black comedy from Alejandro G Iñárritu that beat Richard Linklater’s Boyhood for the Best Picture Oscar in 2015. And since 1917 is being touted as an awards season contender, it seems appropriate to look back on Birdman and how it uses the ‘one-shot illusion’ technique.

Birdman is a film not about a superhero, but rather an actor trying to escape the superhero character that made him famous. The actor in question is Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a faded Hollywood star dissatisfied with this fame and plagued by the inner voice of the Birdman character that made him famous, who delivers every comment with a critical and snarky edge. Thompson is trying to gain a reputation as a serious actor by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play titled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, based on the eponymous short story by Raymond Carver. With the help of lawyer, producer and best friend Jake (Zack Galifianakis), Riggan assembles a cast that includes his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and debutant Lesley (Naomi Watts). However, an accident on stage leads Thompson to cast method actor Mike (Edward Norton) who proves to be incredibly volatile in his acting. This is one of many challenges Riggan has to try and navigate, with the others including a snobby critic (Lindsay Duncan), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), his daughter (Emma Stone), disastrous previews and the voice of Birdman accusing him of being a phoney.

The main aspect of Birdman that stands out is the cinematography by the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki (Children Of Men, Gravity, The Revenant). Like 1917, Lubezki’s camerawork consists of a series of long takes with tracking shots down tight corridors and sweeping movements. I have a deep-found love of long takes if they are used perfectly and Birdman absolutely does, entrancing me in the film from beginning to end. Credit should also go to the editing seamlessly disguised so the film appears to be in one shot, which is done here by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione.

Despite its cinematography, the film revolves around its all-star cast, including Galifianakis, Norton, Riseborough and Duncan. Her role as the critic who treats Riggan’s play as terrible before she’s even seen it is disappointingly disdainful. I get that the character is part of an overall comment by the film about criticism but it just felt out of place. Elsewhere, Watts is at times illuminating as an actress finally getting her big break on Broadway, but my two favourite performances came from Emma Stone as Riggan’s forceful daughter Sam and Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson.

Keaton is especially great, bringing to life a smart and referential script that examines a has-been actor and the effect of being viewed as one. Many have connected Thompson’s career arc to Keaton’s own career pre-Birdman and I think this is the case because Keaton brings a great deal of reality to his role. At one point, Riggan gives an anecdote about being on the same plane as George Clooney during a threatening storm and wondering how his daughter would see Clooney’s face on the news and not his if it crashed. Even Riggan himself believes he is washed up, which gives us a reason why Riggan is doing this play: for fame. He needs this play to work so he is known for something that isn’t Birdman, an intention exposed by his daughter in one magnificently fiery monologue that proves how this is one of Emma Stone’s best performances.

Birdman is an entertaining film with stunning cinematography, two brilliant performances from Michael Keaton and Emma Stone and a pretty good supporting cast. It is not a perfect film; I disliked Duncan’s critic and the minimalistic drum score is odd in certain places. And whilst 1917 is a more absorbing and accomplished piece of filmmaking, Birdman is still a complex journey about the theme of career unfulfillment as shown in films like Federico Fellini’s .  It’s a film about an actor trying to prove he’s not a has-been and how he slowly loses his mind in the process. Throughout the film, Riggan imagines he has telekinetic and levitation powers, an indication he cannot expel the spectre of Birdman from his mind and career no matter what. And by the end, you’ll find that Birdman has taken you on a technically superb, poetic ride.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

So that was my review of Birdman [Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance]; if you agree or disagree, comment below this post. If you want new content delivered to your e-mail inbox, subscribe on the front. You can follow me on Twitter @CinematicSense or on Letterboxd here. And if you want to suggest a film or topic for me to cover, comment on any one of my posts or Tweets. you for reading, and in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night… 

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