Michael Keaton in “Birdman”
Christian Movie Review
[Note: For those who wish to read a parental guidance summary of this movie’s content to see why the film was rated R, please see my summary at the bottom of the review.]
The premise of this film is simple enough. According to IMDB’s page for Birdman: “A washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.”
That summary is deceptively simple, however. It doesn’t really do the movie’s complexity justice. This film has layers stacked upon layers of meaning.
It also helps that a mob of talented actors — Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, to name a few — star alongside Michael Keaton, and they bring out the film’s tone with incredible nuance.
The film is thoroughly R-rated, it’s certainly not targeted towards the faith-based market, and — as an off-the-beaten-path dark comedy — it has plenty of material that many would consider offensive.
However, the film does some remarkable things too — as far as film craft goes — and it makes some profound observations about human nature.
Remember, You’re a Mortal (Unless You’re a Hollywood Action Star)
To really capture the spirit of this film, we need some help from the Romans. In the ancient Roman Empire, when a victorious general achieved the highest military honor in war, he was paraded in Rome in a chariot and honored as if he were a king and a god. But while this happened — according to the writings of Tertullian (Apologeticum, Ch 33, 4) — the Roman general’s slave would stay behind him and say, “Look behind you! Remember that you are a man!” so that the general would not become too self-obsessed or full of himself at the peak of the glorious adulation.
Birdman (aka -The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), is a reversal of that scene in ancient Rome. Riggan (Michael Keaton) was once a god in Hollywood. He was what so many actors have only dreamed about becoming: he was the most famous action star on earth — an A-list household name who played a beloved superhero on the silver screen.
But now he’s a cracked, faded wisp of his robust iconic self. His past self, however, won’t leave him alone. Birdman — suspiciously similar to the popular Batman superhero character that Michael Keaton played in the ’90s — follows him wherever he goes, whispering, “Look behind you! Remember that you were a god!”
The weight of his glorious past — that he was once the hottest thing in global popular culture — eats at every exposed, trembling, aging, washed-up thread of his soul until, finally, everything snaps.
Uncomfortable Proximity and the Vortex of the Ego
This finely tuned, virtuosic film will make you physically uncomfortable. Imagine the way you feel when someone who has no sense of personal space stands with their face a half inch away from yours and acts as if that’s completely normal. The camera does exactly that. It frequently sticks close to the characters, sometimes hovering only a few inches away from them no matter where they go, following them around in long, uncut shots.
It’s unnerving. It’s claustrophobic. And it’s marvelous.
It’s exactly what the film needs.
Boiled down to its basic element, this film is about a man trapped in his ego. He hates it, but he can’t escape. He’s claustrophobic within himself. His desperate attempt to launch a successful play on Broadway is his last-ditch effort to satiate his froth-mouthed, sinister ego that stalks him at every turn.
And with reckless speed the vortex of his ego builds until it sucks everything around him into it.
Existentialism — and the branch within it called Absurdism — has within it the presupposition that it is impossible for humans to find meaning in the universe. Humans, in comparison to the universe, are very small in both size and lifespan, therefore, according to this philosophy, humans are insignificant and incapable of discovering the meaning of life with any certainty. (And, for the record, I find that worldview deeply flawed — though that’s another article for another day.)
Secular humanism, atheism, nihilism — all of the “there is no God”-isms — all have blood ties to existentialism.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) presents a worldview that falls somewhere on the vast playing field of existentialism — probably closer to secular humanism, which is a philosophy that celebrates humanity’s efforts to find meaning and morality in life as a rebellion against the “meaninglessness of existence.”
In a similar spirit, this film is the tale of a man who, when faced with his own insignificance, tries desperately — and I mean desperately — to war against that insignificance. It’s outright rebellion. His weapon of choice to fight against his insignificance is great art. And his identity is so wrapped up in his effort to revive his career that his survival — quite literally — will depend on whether his Broadway play succeeds or fails.
Although the film presents plenty of meaningful moments in this character’s journey, the grand backdrop behind it is the existential assumption that everything is meaningless, there isn’t a God (or if there is, He’s certainly not a factor to any character in this story), and we are laughably insignificant. All of these presuppositions color the atmosphere of this film, and it’s important to be aware of that. Don’t let it all just passively wash over you, in other words. Be conscious of what belief systems inform the film’s structure.
Despite the depressing ghost of existentialism that haunts this film, the story works as a powerful warning against making your career and your talents central to your identity. I walked away from the film doing some real soul searching, trying to see if there was any earthly, temporal priority in my life that was defining my identity in an unhealthy way.
The film could also function as an acidic commentary — a scathing critique — of the way that Hollywood culture inflates egos of artistic people until these individuals self-destruct, and then — the ironic dark twist — the industry reaps profits and publicity from that actor’s self-destruction. That might sound cliched, and I suppose it is, but this film has a creative, surprising take on it (though I can’t say what it is without giving away spoilers).
Although this film surprised me with a sunny optimism that triumphed over the tortured melancholy, the kernel of truth in it hints at a sadder reality: more artists than we realize — even the most successful ones — end their time on this earth with discontentment, full of regret and bitterness, with a voice whispering to them, “Look behind you! Remember that you were once a god!”
Although I disagree with the film’s underlying worldview and I could’ve done without the R-rated content, I wholeheartedly agree with the film’s general message: when the fading glories of this world become the core of our identity and worth, self-destruction quickly follows.
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
Sexual Content/Nudity: A man is seen standing naked (rear nudity, no frontal nudity). A man’s erection is clearly seen through his underwear. A man tries to have sex with a co-star in the middle of a play, and she has to fight to get him off of her. Much of the dialogue includes graphic or crude references to sex. Two women make out. A man runs through Time Square in nothing but his underwear.
Violence/Gore: A character gets his nose shot off, but we don’t see any of the blood or gore. Two men fist-fight. A stage light falls and crashes onto a man’s head, and we briefly see blood pouring down his forehead. A man forces himself on top of a woman, and she must struggle to push him off. A character is punched in the face.
Language: An endless string of f-words used as curse words and as verbs in crude ways. All other swear words — including the misuse of God’s name — occurs often in the film.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: Characters are seen drinking, smoking cigarettes, and smoking pot.
Frightening/Intense/Emotionally Heavy Content: Some of the scenes have an eerie, psychedelic quality to them, and the Birdman has a disquieting, almost horror movie-like vibe to him whenever he speaks. We see a character attempt or come very close to committing suicide twice, and these scenes are particularly intense.