Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Birdman and Hillary Clinton

by Matt McKenna

Birdman-movie-poster-1Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman is a gorgeous and wry dramedy about a 90s-era movie star attempting to regain relevancy in a media landscape to which he can no longer relate. This description may make the film out to be yet another highfalutin take on upper-class midlife crises in the 21st century, and perhaps to some extent that is true. However, as tempting as it is to read Birdman as a trite story about a rich guy having a tough go at it, the film is best understood as a metaphor for Hillary Clinton's rise to fame as the wife of President Bill Clinton and her subsequent struggle to realize her political potential in the subsequent years.

In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays Riggin Thompson, a Hollywood actor who may have some talent but has hitherto squandered it by performing in mass-market drivel, particularly in his career-defining role as a superhero wearing a bird costume. (The parallels to Keaton's own career-defining role as a superhero in Tim Burton's 1990s Batman films is an interesting footnote, however coincidental and irrelevant to the discussion at hand.) While apparently lucrative for Riggin, the fictional Birdman franchise typecasts him as an action movie buffoon rather than the impassioned, serious actor he sees himself as. To prove to his fans (and dare I say–himself?) that he is indeed a real actor with real creative talent, Riggin stages a Broadway rendition of Raymond Carver's short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggin hopes that the intellectual nature of the story and the nuanced performances its stage adaptation requires will finally help him escape from behind the long shadow cast by the Birdman films.

Back in the real world and also lost behind the shadow of a larger-than-life character is Hillary Clinton, a politician of extreme talent that has, like Riggin, been hamstrung by career moves made way back in the 90s. Whereas Riggin agreed to play Birdman, a role for which he gained international notoriety if not acclaim, Hillary Clinton's marriage to Bill Clinton both propelled her onto the national stage and potentially damaged her chances at becoming the President of the United States. Once she became known primarily as “First Lady Hillary Clinton,” it appears the media and American voters had a hard time seeing her as “President Hillary Clinton.” Considering her early promise in politics while she was unmarried, one has to wonder what could have been if Hillary had not wed Bill. Granted, she has had anything but a middling career in politics–Hillary has been both a United States Senator and Secretary of State. But, still… What if? What if her public persona was less tied to her husband and more tied to her obvious skill as a politician? Perhaps her primary campaign to become the Democratic nominee for President in 2008 might have ended with something other than a concession speech.

All this talk of Clinton's primary defeat in 2008 leads us to the next political parallel in Birdman. If Riggin is Hillary Clinton and Birdman is Bill Clinton, then who does Mike, the youngish, ultra-talented, and extremely popular actor played by Edward Norton represent? Well, Iñárritu makes it pretty obvious that the audience is supposed to see Mike as a Barack Obama-esque figure whose attention grabbing charisma steals the show much to Riggin's dismay. Whereas Mike's participation in Riggin's production boosts ticket sales and provides the necessary amount of enthusiasm to guarantee a big opening night, it also upstages the Riggin's comeback story, therefore undercutting the original impetus for the play. Is this not exactly what happened to Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign back in 2008? Barack Obama entered the race, and the excitement level in the election shot up, strengthening Democrats' chances of winning the White House. What was good for the gander, however, wasn't so good for the goose, and Clinton's hope for becoming President dwindled in the following months. Where Mike's presence in Riggin's play was initially welcomed by the beleaguered star, it eventually became an impediment to recasting his public image from fool to artist, just as Obama's entry into the campaign eventually became an impediment to recasting Hillary Clinton's public image from First Lady to President of the United States.

There's a lot to like about Birdman. It's beautifully shot exclusively in long takes, the acting is generally thumbs up, and, of course, it's quite topical. But unlike Riggin's, Clinton's story has yet to reach its conclusion. Birdman accounts for the fact that Clinton's ending has yet to be written by having the plot become increasingly nebulous as the film progresses. By the end of Birdman, it's left open to the viewer's interpretation what exactly transpired. Perhaps the genius of Birdman is that, regardless of whether or not Clinton becomes the President in 2016, the film's ending can be coherently interpreted. So will Hillary Clinton win the Presidency in 2016 and finally rid herself of the baggage she's carried with her since marrying Bill? Iñárritu certainly doesn't know, but he's pretty sure it's going to be weird journey between now and November 2016.