Great Drama, No Action — “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay”

Mockingjay Jennifer Lawrence 2

by Gabriel Valdez

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One is a solid entry in a quickly maturing series. Its only problem, if you choose to view it as one, is that it’s less exciting than its predecessors.

Chosen for a futuristic brand of gladiatorial combat in the first Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was finally rescued from an oppressive military dictatorship at the end of Catching Fire. She now begins to take on the mantle of a revolutionary figurehead for the people of Panem in Mockingjay.

Viewers wanting more action may find Mockingjay too slow. There’s no arena sequence, which has made the last halves of its two predecessors straight-ahead action movies. While these were fun, they always felt just a little forced, as if they weren’t the part the directors and actors were most looking forward to filming.

In the first film, director Gary Ross was most interested in the “have-nots,” painting a poor and wretched society that evoked the Dust Bowl era photography of Dorothea Lange – grimy, desperate, yet determined.

For the second movie, replacement director Francis Lawrence examined the “haves,” expanding on the decadent culture of the capital. Katniss became an icon for resistance. Her fight against President Snow (Donald Sutherland) utilized tools of fashion, celebrity, and media manipulation. It was far more intriguing than any beatdown that happened in the arena.

Mockingjay Jennifer Lawrence

Francis Lawrence returns for Mockingjay, which continues the theme of high-stakes propaganda. For every move – Katniss visits a field hospital, full of wounded rebels – there is a counter. Instead of targeting Katniss, Snow blows up the hospital. He communicates to Katniss that anything she touches is forfeit.

Katniss’ media campaign is focused on making the atrocities of the capital known, evoking fiery emotions that drive recruitment for the rebellion. Snow’s campaign is one of undermining Katniss and tearing at her psyche. For all the bombs, soldiers, and planes each side has, Snow understands the war not as one of weaponry but of public perception.

Some viewers will leave Mockingjay disappointed that not much happens. Others will leave Mockingjay excited at just how much takes place. Because the film is tighter and more character-focused, the plot isn’t driven by events. It’s driven by the breaking down and building up of different characters’ resolves. The tension lies in how much more each one can take. These aren’t characters reaching their breaking point; they’ve already set up residence there and peer over the edge from time to time.

That’s where Mockingjay is most compelling – Katniss is finally making decisions amongst equals like revolutionary President Coin (Julianne Moore) and propaganda expert Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Is it too much of a thinkpiece? Jennifer Lawrence, Moore, and Hoffman hold the film down so well that it’s a moot point. Here are three actors at the top of their game, playing characters who clash and use each other while coping with their own clear damages.

Mockingjay Julianne Moore

In some ways, I applaud the bravery behind Mockingjay. Studio Lionsgate wanted to split the last book of the trilogy into two movies – double the ticket money. The writers and director could have made up crowd-pleasing battles and its audience would’ve accepted it. Instead, they decided to create a more challenging movie that explores the nuance behind propaganda, the manipulation inherent to filmmaking, and the conflicting ideals behind revolutions.

If this franchise is basically Spartacus in slow-mo, we’re at the part where Spartacus is freed, taking a breather and taking stock of his situation. It’s after most of the action but before the big climax, where characters’ learn new roles in a rebellion, question what they’ve got left in the tank, and reassess their relationships. It’s not the Hunger Games entry that I think many expected, but it finds a lot to say on its own without feeling too much like set-up for the finale. Given the opportunity to tread water or take a risk, the creative talents behind Mockingjay took a risk. Is it completely successful? Viewers will be disagreeing until next year’s entry.

For someone who finds the political games in this post-apocalyptic world more fascinating than the action scenes, Mockingjay is a success. It isn’t big or flashy the way its predecessors are, but as a companion piece it makes complete sense. I suspect it will fit very well into the rhythm of the series once it’s completed. It just won’t live up to anyone’s expectations as an action movie. In everything else, it excels.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Katniss is played by Jennifer Lawrence. Her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) features more prominently than in the past. It’s nice to finally see more of their relationship. Rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) is a practical, no-nonsense leader.

Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) returns, continuing to support Katniss, although she has less screen-time here than in the past. Cressida (Natalie Dormer), a television director, is also introduced. Katniss’ mother (Paula Malcomson) and fellow warrior Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) also feature.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes, but even when they do talk about a man – in a nice twist on the classical princess formula – it’s to discuss his rescue. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being used by President Snow as the capital’s figurehead, and Katniss is determined to save him. That said, these are leaders in a war, and they act like it.

Mockingjay is a phenomenal movie in terms of powerful female characters. Katniss herself is the kind of part historically relegated to men – women have rarely had this much on-screen agency as warriors and leaders. The real ground being broken here, however, continues to be a woman playing a soldier with PTSD. I can’t recall another in a big-budget film, can you?

It says a lot to watch a woman this strong and capable in battle. She takes and doles out physical damage. Yet it says even more to show a woman who possesses the strength to constantly sacrifice herself for others while knowing full well the toll it takes on her psyche. We’ve had women warriors before and we still need more of them, but we haven’t had women veterans featured on this scale. That’s an incredible step and there’s no better actress to take it than Jennifer Lawrence.

Alma Coin is a fantastic character. Moore plays her with a practical, scarred edge. Again, we’re presented with a female leader who isn’t just strong and decisive, but who still takes on the burden of leadership despite the heavy psychological toll war and loss has taken. Moore plays her close to the vest, polite but concise. You can’t tell if she’s a leader who doesn’t give away more than she has to, or if she herself has ulterior motives. Part of that is the franchise’s history of betrayal, part of that is an understated performance by Moore.

Mockingjay Natalie Dormer 2

One of my favorite new characters of the year is Cressida, the director assigned to produce the recruitment ads starring Katniss. See, I’m a sucker for directors on film. If you’ve ever made film, you know there’s a certain feeling of invulnerability when you’re holding the camera. The shot takes precedence over everything else, including comfort and safety. Dormer communicates this attitude and much more in limited screen-time.

Cressida prioritizes getting a reaction on camera over her own safety or, say, Katniss’ psychological well-being. This is done subtly, and her crew – including a mute man who invokes one of the most powerful scenes on film this year – shows her great loyalty. Amid all these warriors, there’s one leader who throws herself into danger without a weapon. Her victory lies not in killing others but in capturing emotion, though that doesn’t mean she’s any less tactical in achieving it.

There are other important women, like Prim and Effie, but I focus on these three because Katniss, Coin, and Cressida present three very different forms of leadership. Women rarely get to portray these kinds of characters on film, let alone in the same film. The Hunger Games has always done well in this regard. Now, however, it’s lapping the field.

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