Flight of the Fallen

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton


Birdman (2014), directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu

By Conor Plosia

Birdman can only be described as a cinematic masterpiece. The film keeps you on the edge from its ominous opening to its ambiguous ending. It tells the story of washed up comic-book movie star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) who decides to rejuvenate his career with a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver stories. Director Alejandro Iñarritu may truly dupe audiences with the help of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men); the movie is made to seem that the camera keeps rolling for over an hour, never cutting away from a single shot. Supporting Keaton in the film is an exceptional cast, including Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Zach Galifianakis and Emma Stone. The group is electrifying together, sinking deep into the mindset shared by all aspiring actors – some rising and some falling, but all struggling.

The film is a truly contemporary piece, dealing with social media and youth, and the idea of a new brand of fame –the going-viral phenomenon. In a world where attention spans are given a short leash, Iñarritu has created a piece to transcend our conception of new media. Both Birdman’s explosions and the characters’ responses to them are captured by a single pan of the camera, allowing us to understand it’s possible to witness everything without a transition to a new shot. It’s a refreshing thing to watch. Iñarritu’s vision lends itself to an examination of what is truly important to the tiny people in a large story. 

Keaton is best known for his performance as the caped crusader in the 1989 Tim Burton Batman. The director-actor combination changed the industry, spawning a new breed of big-budget action flicks. In present day, films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight are two of the biggest critical and financial successes in cinema history, and the argument can be made that a debt of gratitude is owed to Burton for his Gothic depiction of the comic book hero.

In Birdman, Riggan finds his subconscious speaking to him in a deep tone – presumably the actors “Birdman” voice.  It jabs at him, making remarks that Robert Downey Jr. and co. actors owe him a debt of gratitude for his pioneering performance as Birdman, clearly mirroring Batman and Birdman as iconic cartoon characters. Michal Keaton’s Batman performance was the first serious and dark interpretation of a comic book character on the big screen, it seems Riggan’s Birdman had a similar effect on the fictional Hollywood world. The subconscious insists also that Riggan’s now only a washed up hack and attempts to lure him back to the feather and beak costume. The constant struggle of living in the past rather than the present haunts our unlikely hero – although, in the end, the torture of his past failures just might be his saving grace.

The idea of an actor playing an actor must be frightening, especially when the character is performing in a Broadway play. In some ways, film acting has its advantages – line memorization is less crucial with multiple takes of short scenes. But Birdman, which such extended scenes, is almost closer in structure to a play. When to enter the scene, where you stand and how you exit are all key ingredients to a great performance when the camera doesn’t stop rolling. 

Birdman offers a delightful blend of drama and comedy that keep things interesting without clashing. The film speaks fervently to its audience with heartfelt humor and a tragic understanding of the pains of existence. We are all minuscule pieces of a universal puzzle, yet as humans, we try to find greater meaning to our existence. Instead, Birdman reminds us, we discover a different truth: we only exist for ourselves.

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