At one point in Birdman, while playing Truth or Dare, one characters picks Truth too many times in a row for the other’s liking. As a means of defense, he says, “Truth is always interesting.” That’s not untrue; movies are usually more interesting for pursuing some kind of truth or revealing a new and different take on the world. But truth is subjective. What’s true for person A isn’t true for person B, and how that differs based on who’s thinking it is an even more fascinating topic. Birdman is focused on the latter, but, even more delightfully, it does it without feeling like a movie that’s contemplating a bigger picture.
Also at play: while exploring the nature of truth may be interesting, it’s boring if you never pick dare.
The film stars Michael Keaton as an actor known primarily for playing a superhero in the early 90s, whose costume features a cowl that covers half the face, called, of all things, Birdman… you can see how this is a stretch. He has adapted a novel for the stage and is now producing, directing, and starring it in on Broadway. The movie takes place over the course of several days from just before the first preview through sometime around opening night, as actors are fired and hired, personal relationships flourish and wither, and all manner of stuff happens of the kind you need to deal with if you’re trying to get a Broadway play to actually happen.
This is a movie about actors Acting with a capital A, and actors acting like humans, and how people act in real life. What’s remarkable is how the whole cast pulls it off. This is a movie with meaty monologues, delivered on and off stage. Particularly delightful are Edward Norton as the diva lead actor (perhaps playing on his own reputation for being difficult to work with), and Emma Stone as Michael Keaton’s fresh-from-rehab daughter, doing her best Lindsay Lohan.
That would be enough to make a good movie, but solidly half of its greatness is due to the marvelous directing trick achieved by Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The whole movie is made to look like it’s one continuous shot, and it works. This is the kind of movie that couldn’t have been made before Modern Technology(TM), and boy, is it great that we have it now. The fact that it never cuts, paired with an insistent drum kit applied judiciously, gives the whole thing a fantastic sense of motion. But it never feels harried; it’s kinetic without being frenetic.
Birdman is a movie that knows exactly what it’s doing, and nails it. In one example: the groundwork is laid early for the possibility of something happening later that you really don’t want to happen. Among other problems, it would be uncomfortably incongruous in tone. And then the thing does happen– but the result isn’t what you fear, because of a different bit of foreshadowing that you didn’t realize was foreshadowing at the time. Foreshadowing saved by other foreshadowing. The movie sees what you were thinking there and dances neatly around it, not unlike the way it occasionally skirts the laws of physics when it finds them inconvenient.