Deborah Khoshaba Psy.D.

Get Hardy

Film Analysis of Birdman

The unexpected virtue of ignorance.

Posted Feb 08, 2015

It’s Riggin Thomson’s last act, so to speak. Said one review:

“This former cinema superhero is mounting an ambitious Broadway production that he hopes will breathe new life into his stagnant career that he deems, now, as having been meaningless. He wants something real, to be known for more than the superhero Birdman. It’s risky, but he hopes that his creative gamble will prove that he’s a real artist and not just a washed-up movie star.” 

And, to Riggin (played by Michael Keaton), real artists ask themselves questions about the meaning of love and life.

He then decides to adapt for the stage and then direct and star on Broadway in a version of the Raymond Carver story Beginners, a story that appears in Carver’s collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Opening night approaches and all kinds of mishaps occur, threatening to thwart the success of Riggin’s play—and most importantly, his last-ditch effort for a meaningful existence. A castmate is injured, forcing Riggin to hire method actor Edward Norton, whose "do whatever spirit moves you in the moment" acting approach undermines Riggin’s script and his artistry. Every momentary impulse is fair game for Norton.

In the play’s final scene, Riggin finds Norton in bed with Naomi Watts (Riggin's love interest). What was supposed to be a serious moment in which Riggin gives a passionate speech about never having been loved, Norton rises out of bed with a real hard-on. The audience breaks out in laughter ruining the gravity of the moment and Riggin 's chance to show himself as a true artist.  

Birdman’s director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu has explored the value of a meaningful life in another one of his award-winning films Biutiful. The story’s main character Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a man living in this world, but because of a terminal illness that gives him only one month to live, he is able to see his death, which guides his every move.

Like Biutiful, Birdman is about a journey of crisis and transformation in which aging actor Riggin questions the true worth of his life, while battling colleagues, family, and friends who threaten his vision. But, mostly, he is battling his own powerful inner demons.

Riggin ’s despair over the meaninglessness of the choices he has made in life that include superficial acting roles, serial infidelity and neglect of his daughter cause an existential crisis that is what Kierkegaard calls a despair of consciousness; a spiritual sickness unto death in which the human being turns against oneself as meaning-maker and knows he has done so. This awareness is more than Riggin can bear. His psyche is crashing, and he’s on the brink of suicide.

To bolster a failing self-esteem and ego, his psyche erects the birdman, an alter ego that like Faust’s Mephistopheles, beckons Riggin to sell out on a meaningful life and come back to the past where he was loved and admired by the masses as a superhero. A mass mentality rather than true artistry is what’s real in life, the birdman says;  “This is really you.”

The birdman, Riggin ’s counter culture daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who believes nothing is special or real and Norton who reveals he is only real when acting give voice to Riggin ’s warring psyche. And, if these fragmented parts of Riggin ’s psyche are not enough to convey his conflict and suffering, Innaritu sets the film to composer Ernest Chausson’s gorgeous orchestral piece titled Poem of Love and the Sea (based on Pablo Neruda’s Love poems) that, if we let ourselves be open to it, tears at our heart strings.

Riggin is a tortured man who wants to know that his life was more than a life contrived of an identity enslaved to middle class values and norms. Birdman’s theme reminds me of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera argues that human beings can only choose one path in living; a life of lightness in which one pursues the values of the herd or one of weight in which one pursues meaning and something greater than oneself. The choice of one pursuit over another precludes an examination between the two, to Kundera.

Innaritu’s Birdman seems to give us this chance. Through Riggin Thomson’s struggles, we are invited to reflect upon the value of a meaningful life, a life of true artistry in which we are fashioning a depth of meaning from the things that happen to us that humanize and make life worth living but that also comes with the hefty price of suffering.

We are also invited to reflect upon the bliss of ignorance, of not acknowledging that there is anything greater to pursue in life than what is right before us—because perhaps there really isn’t. The torture of the pursuit of meaning doesn’t make life more meaningful, just different. Whatever the choice, it is our life and we have to live it. I won’t disclose what Riggin Thomson finally chooses in the end, just in case you haven’t seen the movie yet.

As you may have already surmised, I loved this movie. And, like Riggin, I’m giving meaning to a film that some may say is a meaningless activity. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ll let you decide for yourself.