When you type in Michael Keaton’s name into IMDB, the film he’s credited for first, amongst all of the fortunate souls who have similar names, is Batman from 1989. It’s apparently the best film people know him for and it’s been difficult for him to come out of the Bruce Wayne shadow. That’s more than 25 years, being known for one role in two movies and not too much ever since then. He’s had small roles and big ones including Beetlejuice, his part in the not-that-bad reboot of Robocop as well as voicing a couple of Pixar characters however his role as Batman is the one he’s always known for. Perhaps this film will change that.
In Birdman, Keaton plays Riggan, an actor whose most famous and revered role is a fictional superhero known as Birdman, a character who is also Riggan’s alter ego throughout the film, speaking in a very Christian Bale-esque Batman voice. He is trying to recapture the fame he once had by directing and starring in a Broadway play where he has to battle with his ego as well as those of his co-stars and his recovering drug addict daughter who also happens to be his assistant. Keaton’s character is suffering from a loss of identity, not knowing where his place is in the world and everyone has moved onto digital media with a particular reference to Twitter. It’s something that he refuses to accept and it is within his stubborn ways that he has created a very old fashioned bubble in which he likes to live in. He clings onto his Birdman character as if this is the only thing that’s ever mattered to him. But who can blame him? During a couple of scenes, the residents of New York city become very excited when they see him, yelling out references of this old character to him in the street. He also has problems with alcohol, a chaotic relationship with his daughter, he’s not respected by other actors and with all of this going on he has a show to put on.
The film is also styled in an interesting way, there is a constant drumming soundtrack throughout the movie which gives the feeling that we are being lead up to something momentous. It’s shot as if it is in one long take which is an ambitious filming technique for the director and it is something that works well with this kind of storytelling. The director, Alejandro Gonzalz Inarritu, has plenty of experience dealing with well-rounded characters and complex story lines, looking at his work with 21 Grams and Babel, both of which deal with the complex human condition in several actors at any one time.
There are times when you wonder if Keaton has gone through these problems within his real life and battled with fellow actors for popularity during his career. The similarity between Batman and Birdman is undeniable, both superheroes, both admired. It’s within this that you realise that no other actor could play this role as well as Keaton, he is able to bring the personal experience of his own resume and of his own life. There are scenes in which he is screaming or being screamed at, scenes which make you wonder if art is imitating Keaton’s life. Along with his supporting cast especially Emma Stone and Ed Norton plus a director who is perfect for the job, this makes Birdman a real hero.