Monday, December 29, 2014

Film Review: The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part I

There is a reason that this is the best of The Hunger Games movies thus far and it is this: the rebellion begins.


Mockingjay Part I picks up right after Catching Fire.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been rescued from the arena and is hiding in the underground District 13, run by the militaristic President Coin (Julianne Moore).  Because she is a popular symbol for the rebellion, District 13 wants to recruit her to be the face of the revolution (the titular Mockingjay) and rally the other districts in a series of propaganda videos or "propos."  Katniss, however, is resistant.  All she wants is to save the remaining allies taken in the previous games, especially Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who she may or may not be in love with, as she is caught in a triangle between him and Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

I hate dwell on the romantic aspect, even though I think it works very well.  The movie should not be dismissed because of its rabid fan base among teenage girls so that this series should be confused with the shallowness of the Twilight Saga.  This is a story about big ideas like freedom and tyranny and propoganda.

Director Francis Lawrence really should be commended for being able to tackle these big concepts in such a way that doesn't dilute the main story of Katniss.  He not only draws out some truly great performances from Lawrence, Moore, Hutcherson and others, but he captures their claustrophobic desperation as the odds are stacked against them.  Woody Harrelson as Haymitch has a sober dourness and wisdom.  And Elizabeth Banks' color-drained Effie might come off as annoying to some, but I found it fascinating how her life of privilege prevents her from fully understanding her spartan surroundings.  And Donald Sutherland is fantastic as the cold and condescending President Snow.  He reeks of insincerity and dangerous cruelty.

Philip Seymore Hoffman give one of his most charming performances as Plutarch.  He cynically pushes the idea that a war needs to be sold.  And this raises one of the more interesting aspects of the movie: propaganda.  It is one of the few movies that I've seen that regards war propaganda as not inherently evil.  The movie makes the point that the only way a war can be one is if one side has the will to win.  And it ties very clearly the propos of Katniss with the kindling rebellion in the other districts.  One of the most powerful moments is one that transitions from Katniss singing in a propo to a group of rebels marching towards near certain death to fight the Capitol.

That isn't to say that the movie praises propaganda either.  It acknowledges that there seems to be something artificial at its core, and so it always feels a bit slimy.  This is why the story goes out of its way to show how Katniss is not a smooth, polished person.  She simply speaks the truth of what she knows.  That is why she ends up going to the front to speak about what she sees.  And this is where most of the movie's action comes from.

The movie does not have as much action as the past two, but what makes this movie much richer is that the main characters move from being victims to soldiers.  In the past movies, the Capitol was this all-powerful entity that tortured children in a fight to the death.  The only way to resist was in symbolic defiance.  But this movie changes the trajectory into an actual battle for freedom.  There is a natural satisfaction in finally being able to hit back and even though the fight is uphill, it is still satisfying nonetheless.

And Katniss works so well as a reluctant symbol.  When she visits a hospital of wounded rebels, Lawrence captures the rising spirit of resolve even in the face of suffering.  He understands the importance of symbols.  This is a very Catholic idea, as our tradition is so very symbol rich.  As Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis remind us, the Catholic life is dramatic and requires constant lifting of the spirit in order to do spiritual warfare.  And so we Catholics rely heavily on symbols.  Katniss, whether she wants it or not, is a symbol.

But the story smartly does not make her only a symbolic figurehead.  She is active in her fight to save Panem and Peeta.  Lawrence does such an amazing job of showing a young woman who is always on the verge of breaking under the weight of war, but finds just enough strength to continue.  You can feel the danger in her performance and she has grown into the role even more.

The movie ends on a cliffhanger, but it leaves you hungry for the final act.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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