To better appreciate this film, I recommend reading up a bit on short story writer Raymond Carver, and his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film plays out as sort of a movie within a play within a movie, linked with an abstract narrative about self discovery and self release. The reason I’d recommend knowing a bit more about the background of Carver and the story is to diminish distractions like trying to figure out how the play revolves around the story–it may make things less confusing.
The main story of the film is about a has-been actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who was once a big star because of a superhero movie called “Birdman”. Since that fame, he has faded into obscurity and a generation of parents whose kids have no idea who he is. His irrelevance bothers him, so he wants to try and do something else–but something with more substance. He wrangles up some stage actors and gets some money behind a production of one of his favorite writers, Raymond Carver, and adapts his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” into a Broadway play. None of the people involved have that much experience. His main actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), has never been on Broadway. His producer and friend (and lawyer) Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is doing his best to keep Thomson together emotionally, while the production has a bit of a problem since a light falls on one of the principal actors. The actor, whom no one thinks is very good, is replaced by a much more seasoned–albeit dangerous and unscrupulous–actor named Mike (Edward Norton). Mike can recite the lines before even knowing what they are, and has the ability to lose himself in the character while being on stage. His problem is that he is very unpredictable, and that he’s almost impossible to control. He starts to take a liking to Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who Riggan hardly knows due to all his years spent acting instead of being a father. Riggan and Sam share an understandable strained relationship, but it still seems amicable.
While Thomson tries to whip the show into shape during its preview run, he is tormented by the voice and sometimes appearance of his old character, Birdman. Birdman represents his “dark side”. Birdman believes that Riggan is denying himself the joy of being a superstar by trying to do something as small as theater. Thomson tries to get him out of his head, but he nearly tears his dressing room apart while battling the imaginary “devil on your shoulder”.
He desperately wants to be recognized. He knows that he does not have a good reputation in theater, and is afraid of a prominent critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), will eviscerate his efforts and make him look bad once the play opens. Without even seeing it, she tells him, she will write a bad review.
With every doubt in his mind, Birdman becomes more powerful and manifests himself more to Riggan. His ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) doesn’t believe in him, and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) simply seems like a replaceable understudy in Riggan’s life.
The film is shot to give the feel of watching a play. There are no cuts, only occasional fades that let us know that time is passing. Most of the film feels like it’s one ongoing shot. So in a way, Riggan is on stage throughout the entire movie. When he’s acting in his play, he can come undone just as easily as he can when he’s in his dressing room hearing voices.
The performances are very strong, with a spotlight on Michael Keaton, obviously. He is at his best in this film, utilizing his entire range from ominous to manic to brooding to bright. He is everything at once, and can fall apart at any moment. Norton is also exceptionally funny as the “foil” in much of the storyline, and Emma Stone is appealing as always, as well as Watts and the rest of the “actors”.
There are two titles for this film, and I kept both in tact for the review. “Birdman” seems obvious, but what about “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”? What’s that supposed to mean? Well, the meaning to that title comes within understanding the film itself. And that can be a few different things, culminating in the film’s mysterious and purposely puzzling final shot. But you are definitely watching more than one story when you watch this film. That’s why you’re talking about more than just love when you’re talking about love. The emotional states the film touches on, the play on people’s actions and reactions, mixed with some satire and black comedy, all make for a thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking film.
Clint Eastwood has quite the challenge here: take one of the most unlikable persons of 20th century American history, and make a movie about him that paints him in a kind of sympathetic light. Now, we all know that J. Edgar Hoover should be credited with inventing the FBI. Mulder and Scully wouldn’t exist without him. But beyond that, in some cases Hoover used the same kind of subservice tactics to apprehend criminals that they used to be criminals in the first place. Not to mention that Hoover never seemed to ever recognize organized crime, which was rampant during his tenure as the big guy behind the desk. He also invented a lot of stories about his adventurous exploits that were total fiction. In essence, we have a very careful, paranoid, and highly insecure man at the center of this biopic.
Now, Eastwood enlists a good cast of actors to take care of things. Leonard DiCaprio, who has had an up and down career since “Titanic”; but he has still had some powerful performances (“Shutter Island” comes instantly to mind), and after acclimating yourself to the somewhat off-putting accent in the beginning moments of the film as DiCaprio narrates as an aging J. Edgar, he does wind up sewing together a very solid portrait of who J. Edgar Hoover was as a person. He really does eventually become him, in a way I haven’t seen DiCaprio do with a biographical character. He tried it in “The Aviator”, but that performance was somewhat stilted by a banal screenplay and a director who was going through the motions. He was better at it in “Catch Me If You Can”, but I still felt that as a boyish looking actor, he was miscast for someone who was consistently mistaken for being older than he was.
Here, once you get past the awkward accent and the extremely bad make-up, you really lose consciousness of DiCaprio as an actor, and see him as simply J. Edgar Hoover.
Unfortunately for the film, it doesn’t go much beyond that. Dustin Lance Black pens the screenplay, but his talents were much better suited for the superior “Milk”, a film about an overt homosexual man who was a prominent figure in civil rights for gays during his time, and made it even better by not just making it about Milk, but about adversity and insecurity of homophobic straight men. But here, Black unfortunately doesn’t have a lot of evidence to work with while building the narrative arc for J. Edgar Hoover because, unfortunately, his personal file was shredded at the time of his death. So Black does what he can, and while he does paint a very interesting story about a man conflicted, it just doesn’t transcend the bigger question: Why did J. Edgar become what he was, and why did he do the things he did? And I’m not just talking about wearing a dress. That actually is somewhat answered (and is actually one of the better scenes in the film). The men in Hoover’s life prove to be more influential to him, except for his mother (played by Judi Dench) who shapes some of his personal issues, at the same time giving him confidence about his professional endeavors. The other woman, Helen Gandy, his assistant (played by Naomi Watts), has less influence on him but is never too far from him.
Professionally, Hoover was a very questionable person. He seemed to contradict himself, and go after Communism at a Joe McCarthy level of enthusiasm–but considered McCarthy as less than his equal. He stood by the presidents he served, but he challenged the political powers that be to gain more power for himself and become his own boss. Really, by the time Nixon was president, he was his own shadow.
Except, personally–he did have a shadow, in Clyde Tolson (played wonderfully by Armie Hammer). Tolson’s older self also suffers from bad make-up–probably the worst make-up I’ve ever seen applied to someone outside of a cheap Haunted Corn Maze ride. But credit Hammer with bringing as much credibility to someone in badly applied makeup as I’ve ever seen. Tolson is someone that J. Edgar Hoover admired and trusted in; but more than that, allegedly, he may have even loved deeper than a platonic friendship. Now, there’s never been any real evidence that this was true. But Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay doesn’t necessarily try to make something out of nothing. Tolson and Hoover have a very strong professional relationship as well. And some of the ways they spend time with each other, you can’t help but wonder. There’s a climactic scene between the two of them (calm down, it’s not what you think) that really shows what both of those men really are. Tolson is more brave, more resolute, more honest. Hoover is a coward.
Maybe that’s what Eastwood wanted to show, and I guess that’s the point. But can we really sympathize with Hoover, knowing what we know professionally about him? That really isn’t exploited in the film; it deals too much with his personal inner conflicts. I think that’s a misstep. Hoover became a power monger himself, and the film spends too much time giving him credit for the Lindbergh baby incident–not enough time exposing some of the fraudulent things he did. In fact, in the scene showing his file being shredded, there’s a sort of comical tone to it as if we’re supposed to laugh it off.
Well, that really shouldn’t be shrugged off. It’s because of that that we really don’t get the whole story with Hoover. Ultimately, while all the dressing and sides are good, the meat of the meal is very thin and stringy. And even with the strong performances, the film fails at its core.
To me, Clint Eastwood is losing a little bit of his grip on some of his later films. He used to really execute with a quiet brilliance. “A Perfect World” and of course “Mystic River” come to mind. But now, he seems to be just collecting a paycheck instead of having a vision. I hope he reverts to his old self, because he’s one of the finest directors out there now. But he should be aptly criticized when he doesn’t live up to his potential.