The War Beckons
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was split into two films and at that point it made sense. Not only because Warner Brothers were able to line their pockets incredibly effectively, but also due to the reality of the final installment in the saga checking in at a whopping 720 pages. Mockingjay is about half that length and is only split into two installments to increase revenue. In spite of that reality, that’s not to say the film doesn’t work. As the first installment of the Hunger Games finale, Mockingjay – Part 1 is a solid film that rises above its source material by expanding the world simply beyond Katniss’s point of view. The trick to making a film in a franchise work is for it to be its own film while allowing it to connect to the greater saga simultaneously. Mockingjay – Part 1 largely succeeds on that front, despite a plot that is stretched by about twenty or thirty minutes and a midway scene that is recycled material from the first few moments of the film. What the films have done that the slim books were not able to do as successfully (something I rarely say) is give a greater context to the true horror of living in Panem and what existence outside of the Capital truly means. The intelligence with which those political realities of Panem are handled is remarkable and allows for the entire film to click, even though it suffers from a knowledge that this is one long set-up for the Battle of the Capitol that is arriving in your theaters next November.
The politics of The Hunger Games have always been exponentially more powerful than the actual games themselves (that may be an unpopular opinion), churning out a film that is as close to an endorsement of a proletariat revolution as Hollywood can provide. The Capitol, for all of is might and power, suffers from what all authoritarian governments inevitably crumble before – insulation. The high walls of the Capital keep it safe but when the people rise those walls will hardly stand. Mockingjay – Part 1 is a film concerned primarily with the politics of propaganda, a war that is easily as significant as the battlefield, if not more so. What is often lost in cycles of perpetual warfare is the reality that winning hearts and minds is the most vital success on the pathway to victory. Doing so is difficult enough, but winning hearts and minds over the mighty power and fear of a government whose tyranny has been existence for decades is far, far harder. That is the struggle that the rebels of District 13 are up against. Katniss, faced with the prospect of becoming the rebels’ symbol, is hesitant to become their public face, only agreeing to do so when President Coin of 13 agrees to grant Peeta and the other victors in the Capitol’s grasp immunity. Needless to day, Katniss’s propaganda is far more powerful than that of the Capitol, her pain and despair feeling far more germane than the fear mongering from President Snow. What the Capitol forgot – in perhaps its biggest mistake – was to provide the people of Panem some semblance of hope to latch on to. The Hunger Games were a clever, brutal way of enforcing that hope but one the people found that one person to remove that veil of fear, suddenly the entire thing comes crumbling down. It’s a remarkably fragile political system, evidenced by the scores of bombings the Capitol has to embark upon to keep order – and the violence that undermines the entire apparatus. Once the people find a voice and you have rendered them so hopeless that there isn’t anything left for them to lose, you create a situation that is ripe for all hell to break loose. And break loose it does, in spectacular, bloody fashion.
There’s little action in this installment, which is perfectly fine by me. I don’t need an action flick embedded into the middle of a political one in order to be entertained and learn something. But what the action does provide is that palpable feeling of a revolution and it’s done so powerfully that it makes you want to join a revolution yourself. The three greatest action set-pieces are the Peacekeepers in the forests of District 7, the breaking of the dam that provides all of the Capitol’s power, and the final raid into the Capitol that provides an eerie, Zero Dark Thirty feeling. Keeping in mind its PG-13 rating, the film also keenly avoids too much bloodshed, opting instead for stark reactionary sequences that sell the horror of the events throughout the film without milking it for cheap emotions. We don’t need to see District 12 being bombed out of existence – the horrifying aftermath of Katniss’s defiance is all the more evident in the dusty rubble and mass of skeletons. We don’t need to see the hospital full of wounded men, women, and children in District 8 bleed in the explosion – the fires that emulate from that explosion speak volumes. And when the wrath of President Snow reaches District 13, watching the refugees huddling together for support is so powerful it hurts. The faces of those torn apart by a brutal, tyrannical government are the ones we need to remember, the ones with whom we need to connect. The bloodshed doesn’t need to be explicit for those feelings and connections to tear your heart apart. The implications alone are enough.
Now for the negatives. Despite doing an admirable job of crafting a narrative for the first installment to stand on its own, Mockingjay – Part 1 is never able to shake off that feeling that the entirety of its run is build-up. It comes quite close to eschewing that shadow, but a script that runs for longer than necessary abandons that opportunity. There’s a key scene at the beginning where Katniss finds a white rose and is terrified, an amazing use of an innocent symbol that becomes menacing in an instant. And that scene is replayed later with a field of roses that plays like a repeat of that sequence and one that likewise is a lot less effective. Katniss has been a resultant hero from the beginning and that makes sense – she does have something to lose in her family and loved ones. At the beginning, her hesitation is understandable. In the middle of the film, it is far less so. It feels like the film just trying to pad its running time and that certainly shouldn’t be the case. The largest chunk of the narrative that’s been running through the series is the love triangle that doesn’t work for basically a second. The most touching moment between the two victors is when Katniss is having nightmares and Peeta sleeps in the same bed with her for comfort. The film reuses that sequence and while it retouches that same emotion of kindness, it never becomes romantic. Peeta is such an underdeveloped character that every single time that Katniss screams about him being so damn important, it’s more grating than endearing. Hell, it was annoying when Carrie was running for Brody in Season 3 of Homeland, and Brody had the benefit of being played by the incredible Damian Lewis. Carrie and Brody bonded over their experience of being psychologically scarred individuals at the hands of the War on Terror and that relationship was developed carefully. The Hunger Games tries to do that with Katniss and Peeta, but because Peeta is so paper thin, it doesn’t work. Neither does the potential addition of Gale work, considering that he’s basically on screen to mope about how much Katniss prefers Peeta to him. His strongest moment is during the propaganda film in District 12, where there’s little romance is involved. That’s not a mistake. Finnick’s speech was fairly important to the narrative but choppy editing mitigated its effect. And the ending is completely screwed from where it needed to be. I understand the desire to end it on President Coin’s stirring speech about revolution, but that speech and the choking scene should have been switched (with slight editing). The right ending would have been Peeta’s hands clasping around Katniss’s throat, the life fleeing from her bulging eyes. Talk about a cliffhanger.
Francis Lawrence’s direction is always assured and he lends himself quite well to the relatively altered landscape from Catching Fire. James Newton Howard’s score is amazing and self-assured. The script from Danny Strong and Peter Craig is largely excellent, managing to get some humor out of this tremendously bleak film. The production design and weaponry are excellent, with Beetee’s fiery bow and arrows the absolute highlight. The visual effects have improved tremendously from the original and the damn sequences is a standout. If there’s a weakness to the visuals, it’s that there’s little light or change of color throughout the film, which makes sense in one sense because of how bleak the entire situation is. On the other hand, it’s stifling and leaves much to be desired in terms of visual panache. The performances are stellar and Jennifer Lawrence especially nails the conflicting emotions of Katniss, even when the script doesn’t allow them to feel germane. Julianne Moore is a fantastic addition to the cast as President Alma Coin of District 13, selling a formidable fortitude while seeming effortless. Natalie Dormer’s Cressida is a stark, brilliant figure who embodies the hardened propaganda filmmaker with a remarkable sense of pathos and sense of purpose. Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Sarita Choudhury are all great, with Donald Sutherland’s icy President Coriolanus Snow chilling in every frame. The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman is tremendous in the film dedicated in his memory and it’s saddening to realize that this was one of his last performances. What The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 does brilliantly is imbue that fervor of revolution within you, which considering the events of late might be more important than ever. “If we burn, you burn with us,” Katniss thunders at President Snow and in that moment this entire revolution becomes encapsulated. The world is an unjust place, that is something that is quite clear to everyone that isn’t blinded by the boundaries of privilege. But an even more pressing crime is to let that injustice continue to go unchecked. At some point, sooner or later, we have to fight back.
Title: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Produced by: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik
Screenplay by: Danny Strong, Peter Craig
Based On: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson. Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Sarita Choudhury
Music: James Newton Howard
Cinematography: Jo Willems
Editing: Alan Edward Bell, Mark Yoshikawa
Production Company: Lionsgate, Color Force
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Dates: November 19, 2014 (London premiere), November 21, 2014 (North America)
Image Courtesy: The Epoch Times