Home > Film, Politics, Reviews > Film Review – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Film Review – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014; Directed by Francis Lawrence)

In the first half of the concluding chapter of The Hunger Games cinematic quadrilogy, the core characters’ struggles take the form of open political machinations. Previously, the divisions and grievances simmering beneath the surface of the society of the fantasy world of Panem cropped up in the context of the titular deadly game of mass-televised attrition contested by minors from across the twelve Districts. Now, after the arena-smashing ending of the last Games in the previous installment, Catching Fire, a long-hidden but secretly active faction of rebels is in open revolt against the brutal authoritarian regime of the Capitol.

The focal point of this revolution is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), first a Games co-winner and then the young Artemis whose electric arrow tore a hole in the fabricated heavens and let a new light of potential liberty pouring in. Spirited away to the massive underground bunker city of District 13, Katniss meets Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), President of this isolated breakaway people’s republic. Coin and former Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have grand plans for a guerilla propaganda campaign to accompany the continuing armed resistance to the iron-fisted government of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), with Katniss at the centre of it as their authority-defying “Mockingjay”.

Though she cannot deny that she is a potent figure of resistance for the masses and a target for Snow’s crackdowns, Katniss as usual is much less invested in the wider struggle than in protecting those that she cares about: her mother (Paul Malcolmson) and sister (Willow Shields), her platonic dudefriend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), and her fellow Games Victors, especially Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). It is her deeply-felt empathy for those around her, extended by natural sympathy to all those struggling under the yoke of oppression, that makes Katniss such a potent symbol. For Katniss Everdeen, all politics are personal, and it is not surprising that the concessions she demands of Coin and Heavensbee in return for her cooperation as a propaganda star for their cause relate to the safeguarding of her personal emotional connections.

One of those connections, to the absent Peeta, has become ever stronger in separation. Peeta is being held in the Capitol, apparently against his will, and she demands that the authorities of District 13 launch a rescue mission to bring him and other Victors who survived the Quarter Quell to safety. Peeta’s value as a target is questionable, however, as he is participating in a series of broadcasted interviews with a sober-toned Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the usually flamboyant Games host and carnivalesque spokesman for the surface platitudes that uphold the oppressive regime. Peeta doesn’t precisely trumpet the Capitol’s talking points, but does criticize the violence unleashed by the rebellion and Katniss’ role in fomenting it. This makes him a divisive figure in the eye of the rebels, a traitor to their cause, though Katniss never doubts that coercion lies behind his every word.

Mockingjay – Part 1 is a more limited film in terms of action-infused incident than its predecessors. Director Francis Lawrence, who also helmed Catching Fire, stages sequences of loggers booby-trapping a platoon of Peacekeepers and a strike team storming and blowing up a hydroelectric dam to cut power to the Capitol to give a sense of the guerilla war raging across Panem and its connections to the Mockingjay “propos” sent out from District 13. Katniss ventures near the front lines to visit a hospital for the wounded and awesomely shoot down a government bomber with an explosive-tipped arrow, too (filmed for propaganda purposes, natch). But otherwise this is a film about a movement under siege, claustrophobic and bunker-bound. Even a massive aerial bombardment effort on District 13 by Capitol forces is less about inflicting losses than sending a laser-guided message to challenge and demoralize Katniss in particular, and is thus viewed entirely from the perspective of the subterranean dwellers enduring it.

Make no mistake, Mockingjay – Part 1 is all about Katniss Everdeen and the forces tugging at her, compelling her to give herself up to their power. The pull of Gale and Peeta, her potential male romantic partners, is mirrored by the powerful orbits of the District 13 and Capitol leaderships. Gale is a brave and capable freedom fighter for the resistance who has been loyal to Katniss for years, while Peeta is a (possibly brainwashed) tool of the enemy’s fascist propaganda who has, nonetheless, shared the singular experience of the Hunger Games with her (twice); President Snow is devious and merciless beneath his suave and eloquent facade and crushes the hopes of the masses yearning to breathe free, but President Coin and her followers constitute a faceless, jumpsuited, collectivized multitude whose invocations of democracy ring worrisomely hollow in the face of their grim-visaged conformity (Andrew O’Hehir of Salon characterized the arrayed opposing forces of this civil strife quite cannily as the Roman Empire vs. the Khmer Rouge). Choosing either Gale or Peeta involves fundamental compromises of Katniss’ identity, and both District 13 and the Capitol will kill thousands or more in the name of their causes and shamelessly manipulate popular opinions about these war crimes with a barrage of propaganda.

The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins posits that there are no good choices, only less worse ones. Coin’s Maoist bunker culture says the right things about liberty from oppression and slaughters only the Capitol’s jackbooted stormtroopers in pursuit of this goal, while Snow’s regime commits heinous massacres and atrocities to sustain their authority and economic system of trickle-up exploitation. There’s little question about which side is less worse, but there is question, and that is important.

Despite this, Mockingjay – Part 1 feels less vital and politically resonant than the films it serves as a sequel for, despite being more overtly about political themes. The vanishing of the Hunger Games themselves from the text can account for some of this; their resonant self-contained and disseminated messages about the nature and cost of power have no real equal in the realpolitik workings of this narrative. One of the subtle matters of concern about Coin’s rebels, mind you, is their apparent ambivalence towards the Games. This supreme symbol of the Capitol’s control over the outlying Districts and their downtrodden peoples is not one that the egalitarian revolution feels confident in challenging. Indeed, they are glad to attempt to turn the Victors, Katniss included but not at the exclusion of all others, into PR weapons to turn public opinion in their favour. It’s a clear tell that Coin’s promised utopia may not be so different from Snow’s established autocracy, after all.

But this text’s vitality is drained more thoroughly by the unerring focus on Katniss’ central dilemma, on the false dichotomy of strength vs. vulnerability. On one hand, she heeds the appeals of those who desperately need her (Peeta, the rebels); on the other, she is attracted to the poles whose certainty and self-command complement her own (Gale, Snow and his Capitol order). Katniss’ dilemma also represents the false dichotomy of modern femininity. Her tendency towards independence and self-reliance is constructed as being at odds with nurturing maternal instincts, be they expressed towards a victimized baker’s boy or a victimized multitude of Panem citizens. Katniss Everdeen has thus far followed a third way, though she has shifted from one pole to the other at various times, sometimes drastically. Mockingjay – Part 1 suggests strongly that whatever her preference concerning these opposing options, her world is set on making her choose between them in the end, and that the fate of her world may depend on the choice. Part 2 will tell what this choice is, and what it will cost the Mockingjay to make it.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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  1. September 19, 2015 at 5:17 pm

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