The Leadership Review Team

Movie in Focus – Birdman

The Leadership Review Team


’And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.’

The movie starts with these lines from Raymond Carver’s last poem ‘Late Fragment’, assuming shape on the screen, which are also inscribed on the troubled writer/poet’s tombstone. This stanza, just before the starting credits, gives you a faint idea about the existential question the movie is going to pose to its viewers, and the way it is going to explore the answer.

How often does the modern man rushing through the busy by lanes of bubbling metropolises around the world stop for a second and ask, why? Why the rush? Why the herculean effort? This dark-comic-drama by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has made critically acclaimed movies like Babel and 21 grams, poses this question to us, but not in the same nihilistic way as David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’ did. Fight Club asked the question, mainly of the working class, “…(Why are we) working jobs we hate so we can buy sh*t we don’t need” and answered it with ‘Project Mayhem’ (detonating all the bank buildings, and with them, destroying credit history of people, symbolising the end of a consumerist culture). Birdman on the other hand, addresses the leaders of the world, who are absorbed deeply in maintaining or regaining nothing less than the epitome of their potential success, and asks of them “…who the fu*k are you”, and leaves the answer for us to decipher.

Birdman is a comedy, an emotional melodrama, a heightened case of sadness and triumph, and a surreal experience all woven into one. It revolves around the delusions and reality of Riggan Thomson, a washed out actor who used to be an A-lister almost two decades ago for being the face of a superhero movie franchise, Birdman.  A story not so different from Michael Keaton’s, who plays Riggan Thomson, and is best known for his role as Batman in  Tim Burton’s Batman movies. Riggan’s Birdman franchise was so successful that people knew him only as Birdman, not the actor he was. That’s the reason why he rejected the third sequel of the movie and his life kept going downhill from there. His family broke up, he attempted suicide, his daughter took to drugs, and over time, he lost most of his money.

In the fading half of his life and still desperate to gain  validation from the thespian class (and birdman_xxlgthrough it re-invent his movie career), Riggan writes a theatrical adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk about When We Talk about Love’, directs it, and stars in it. But then enters Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, who is a method actor so perfect (or perfectly deranged), that he insists on drinking real gin, being threatened by a real gun, and copulate on stage in front of 800 odd people in audience. Mike embodies the ‘versatile actor’ that Riggan so badly wants to be recognised as, but does not have the means to become. This enhances Riggan’s sense of insecurity and disgust for himself as he constantly hears how he is going to fail and how he should give up the theatre to go back to what he hates (Birdman movie franchise), in the voice of his Birdman character, which gets stronger as the movie progresses.

The film is intentionally shot to appear as a single shot to take the audience deep inside Riggan’s world, and live his struggle as he does. We live the desperation he feels when he rationalises re-financing his Malibu house, which he intended to leave for his daughter, to fund the play. He says, “I got a chance to do something right. I got to take it…You know last time when I flew here from LA, George Clooney was sitting two seats in front of me… We ended up flying through this really, really horrible storm…And the people on the board are…crying and praying…I just sat there…And I’m thinking ‘Oh boy, the next morning when Sam looks at the paper it’s going to be Clooney’s face on the front page, not mine… Did you know Farah Fawcett died the exact same day as Michael Jackson?” We suffer the shattering of his heart after the partly marijuana-induced monologue by his daughter Sam (played by Emma Stone), hits the nail on his head, “There’s an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant every single day! And you act like it doesn’t exist….I mean who the fu*k are you?… You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what. You’re right. You don’t! It’s not important, OK? You’re not important, get used to it!” We experience his rage when he responds to Tabitha Dickinson, the most influential of critics, telling him that she’ll close his play with a horrendous review — “You write a couple of paragraphs, and you know what, none of this costs you fu*king anything. You risk nothing, nothing, nothing! Well, I’m a fu*king actor. This play costs me everything. So, I tell you what, you take this fu*king malicious, cowardly, sh*ttily written review, and you shove it right the fu*k up…”

But the feeling of continuity, as in the real life, that the filming of the movie induces, is not the only reason we experience all his emotions. We experience them like any other person who is trying to triumph over his trials, on the way to success, that sometimes seem insurmountable. While our struggles may not be as tortuous as Riggan’s, we nevertheless relate to his perils because we too exist in a world where our success and failure is essentially intertwined with the way we are able to impact the world around us. Where all of heroism and leadership is derived from the legacy we leave behind for the society. Where we all find ourselves surrounded by struggles that often eclipse the smaller joys that are always there for us to reach out and access. And yet, it is nobody’s fault that the world’s that way.

So, did Riggan stop struggling and wake up to the bliss that he had to his peril, all along? Or did he perish like many more before him expanding their boundaries and adding to the world they lived in?

On the day of the play, Riggan sees himself taking the powers away from the Birdman and flying to the Broadway theatre; the reality is broken to the audience when a cabby follows him into the theatre demanding his fare in Americanised Gujarati. On the night of the play, in the last scene where his character commits suicide, he shoots himself with a real gun, and the audiences are left enthralled with the realism inherent in the act while the critic Tabitha Dickinson gets up and walks off. That’s the first time in the film we see a cut and the next scene in the hospital hangs on to the thin line between reality and delusion. But that doesn’t matter. The way I see it, what happens after he left his audience enthralled was totally irrelevant. To his mind, he was going to add a new dimension to the theatre in form of ‘super-realism’. In his mind, he was prevailing over the shadow of the Birdman. And in that, he also transcended his need for validation. He no longer wanted to be a ‘versatile actor’ that Mike Shiner was; he was already the ‘versatile actor’ that he could have become. He had achieved what he wanted, and more — the pinnacle of his potential.

Coming back to the question that this movie poses to the leaders – ‘Who are you? What difference can you make to this world that is much greater than your miniscule existence? Who are you to believe that you can make a difference to a world that existed before you came, and will continue to exist after you are long gone? Why don’t you discover the fruit of contentment like most of the bourgeois class and quit pushing the limits?’

The answer is inherent in the stanza from ‘Late Fragment’, with which the movie and this piece start. On being asked at the end of our journey in this world, ’What did you want?’ even the most uptight of us in their ultimate analysis will end up saying, ‘To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth’. For the bourgeois, content in the mediocrity of their lives, beloved by a few for the relations of the blood is enough. They just get it, unconditionally. For the leaders, for the Atlases who carry the weight of this world on their shoulders, the quest is to make a difference to the world, to make it better and as a consequence, to be loved by the world.


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