Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Politics Of: Mockingjay (Pt. 1)

Mockingjay (Pt 1), the last book in the Hunger Games series is in theaters now. What are its politics? The first section reviews the movie--the second part discusses the specific politics and will have spoilers.

A lot of people thought the 3rd Hunger Games book would be a problem on film (just like a lot of people think the third Divergent book will be a disaster). It had structural problems beginning with: no Hunger Games. Secondly, a lot of the "action" takes place in an underground silo with our heroine suffering serious PTSD. While author Suzanne Collins makes us care by virtue of her view into Katniss' mind, that's not going to work on screen.

And also? Phillip Seymour Hoffman died. Talk about a downer.

The Omnivore will, for good measure, throw in the practice of breaking final-books into two movies for maximal profit (it's not like the 3rd Hunger Games book was twice as long as the other two). Arguably Peter Jackson pioneered this by "expanding" Return of the King into a zillion endings and then perfected this by turning the modestly-sized The Hobbit into about nine hours of film.

That said, Mockingjay all comes together pretty well--largely due to star Jennifer Lawrence. She projects sufficient intensity and vulnerability that her damaged heroine has screen presence even when she isn't doing the taking (a good amount of the "action" is her surveying bomb damage).

Hoffman is painfully excellent, taking over the role of media coach (mostly) from Woody Harrelson (who has a smaller but still electrifying role). Josh Hutcherson's Peeta is captured and held in the Capital--he mostly appears on their 'Tonight Show' and his performance sells it as a prisoner of war who is appearing to cooperate--but leaves just a sliver of doubt as to whether he has actually switched sides.

These are all difficult performances and without either the glamor of the Capital or the spectacle of the games, the move absolutely relies on them. Mockingjay was a risky endeavor and it pays off thanks to its leads nailing it.

The other two notables are, of course, Donald Sutherland as Panem's skin-crawling President Snow facing off (in theory at least) against District 13's President Coin, played by a frosty Julianne Moore. Where Snow got his job through the treachery and guile Sutherland oozes, it appears Coin won her position through raw competence: she certainly doesn't have that fired-up! Let's go! charisma you might expect in an elected leader.

Given this dynamic, it kind of makes sense to split the movies where they did. Mockingjay is the story of Katniss' transition from being used as entertainment (in the Hunger Games) to being weaponized by the rebellion. She's still meant to be a symbol (and still meant to be under control) but she's going to be sold to different audiences.

The movie ends at one of the plot-beats in this evolution.

Where the first two had to show us a dazzling super-tech high-fashion city, the third needs to show us bombed-out vistas of destruction and aerial raids. The special effects are well up to the job and we get a good sense of the scale of the war. If the battle scenes are smaller-scale than some of the fantasy epics, they give us a more personal and up-close sense of what it means to rebel against a superior force. You expect losses. You better believe in what you are fighting for.

By the time The Hunger Games series is finished (and it mostly is: the final movie comes out next year and Philip Seymour Hoffman had only one more week of filming, anyway) it will be a complete edition that newcomers will no longer need to read. Children, today, too young to read the books will grow up only needing to read them if the care to: the story will be sufficiently well rendered so as to make watching it a reasonable choice.

It's a testament to the film's creators that a reader may find either version preferable (the movie's greater inclusion of Elizabeth Bank's Effie Trinket is a definite improvement over the book in much the same way that the whipping scene in the 2nd movie was both tighter and more relevant to the story line than the author's).

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of: Mockingjay
The politics of Mockingjay are the politics of war-time celebrity propaganda. In July of 1972 Jane Fonda visited Hanoi Vietnam to tour a series dikes the US Military had bombed. Already a famous actress and left-wing cause supporter, she had been galvanized against the war by French activists. Before her trip she had (ironically, given his role in Mockingjay) toured the US with Donald Sutherland with an anti-war road-show.

During her visit she gave radio addresses, took an iconic picture atop an anti-aircraft gun, and met with captured POWs who both had not been tortured (according the surviving vets) and had volunteered to meet with her. She did later call veterans claiming to be tortured liars and incited deep and abiding hatred (the Naval Academy had to officially outlaw new recruits doing a regular "Goodnight, bitch" call-out against her).

While she was not tried for her activities (in came out in 2013 she was under surveillance) another well-spoken 'celebrity' was actually killed by US forces for doing something similar. Anwar Al-Alwaki was killed in a drone-strike Sept 30, 2011. Although he did not take up arms against the US--nor was he a material planner in any attack, he was able to both reach Muslim American audiences (he was very fluent in English and American idiom and had a good understanding of Muslim radicalization).

Although not a celebrity in the way Fonda was, he was rightly considered a dangerous threat due to his ability to incite people (like the Ft. Hood shooter) to deadly action.

In Mockingjay, the Capital, having created a mega-star, now finds her in the wrong hands and needs to shut her down before her message can spread.

Unlike Fonda or Al-Alwaki, Mockingjay's Katniss has currency on both sides of the war--she was beloved by the Capital--which means they have to be extra careful in how they treat her (although, notably, we don't see the likely smear-campaign they would have launched as soon as she escaped--perhaps that is because they still have Peeta and feel they can use him to get to her if they don't try to make her toxic?).

The movie gets several things right. Her personal visit to a hospital would raise morale. There is a reason the real-life US Military has high-ranking officers do that (unless, you know, your general slaps a soldier in a hospital ... then you have to relieve him). Secondly, you have to protect your celebrities but they need to be kind of close to the action too. Some of the WWII comedians did "visit the front lines"--but were certainly never thrown into direct combat.

Finally, the movie gets that symbols are easier to find than manufacture. The F/X-heavy propaganda piece the rebellion tries to shoot falls flat even when Katniss manages to nail her lines. It doesn't ring true. When Haymitch gets up in front of the leadership group, he asks when Katniss touched people and concludes it was when she was unscripted.

That's true (even for the Tonight Show she wasn't actually scripted)--but everyone (including, uh, the script) missed the larger point: she was effective when she was doing things for other people. When she sang to Pru. When she tried to save Peeta. These are the times she touched us--when facing death she thought of someone else.

This is why Katniss turns out to be an uncontrollable and ultimately disastrous choice for president Coin. She could write herself any ticket she wants and what she wants is to limit Coin's retribution (and, ultimately, bring more of her co-celebrity allies to District 13). Jane Fonda could be controlled by her handlers--Katniss is running around with high-explosive warhead arrows.

What any force wants from its propaganda-celebrities is for them to spout its line. In World War II that was easily achieved with, for example, Bob Hope. In World War II there was no doubt whose side everyone was on. In the Hunger Games, though, Coin wants Katniss to be a figure-head leading District 13's army--but in the end, she's leading her own.

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