This semester, I found myself partially engaged in questions of what makes a film subversive. There
are moments in time where something may be described as such because of the rules it breaks in terms of form or acceptable content, others where the politics of a movie seem to move in opposition to popular opinion. In discussing the conditions that could make for subversive, or, at the least, rebellious cinema within the American studio system, the conclusions seemed to fall into a few camps. All felt that the most subversive acts had to have some kind of financial backing that would push them in front of the largest audience, though many were wary of essays and claims that The Lego Movie or Transformers or Captain America: The Winter Soldier successfully managed the transgressive acts ascribed to them. My class seemed more compelled by the notion that two current films had that possibility, the first was The Interview - picked largely because of the seemingly very real political response it has been met with - and Mockingjay Part 1. They chose Mockingjay with the understanding that the second half of the film will likely (ok, undoubtedly) reverse the logic by which they felt this first half manages a type of subversion. I've been weighing this since. The longer I've held off writing about the film, the more I'm inclined to agree with them: this is a blockbuster that manages something most cannot, and the varied responses to those impulses are the best indicators of its trespasses.
Even so, my read on the way the film manages to be a minor revolution are slightly different than the student-drawn conclusions on its supposed subversive acts. Their reasons spoke to the choose-your-own-protest legibility of the film's uprising. The flexible nature of the battle between Panem's citizens and the totalitarian tyranny of the Capitol is applicable, in their eyes, to any number of social justice issues. The world around them is in turmoil. In Chicago, lately, we have roving bands of protesters peacefully calling attention to police corruption and hate crimes. They see, too, the way fear is used as a tool on news stations, and they understand what the news networks don't want to give them credit for: the way they're being kept in line in the name of safety. Past that, they've made note of the three-fingered salute employed in The Hunger Games used to signal actual rebellion in police protests in Thailand. The Hunger Games hits on something lurking not simply here, but globally. It evokes something in those who watch it, triggers some kind of understanding - as dystopian visions tend to - of the way our own society functions. In Mockingjay, the games are over. We don't return to the arena, we don't watch children slaughter one another for sport. Instead, the action has moved into what is best described as the film's "real world." Controls have been put in place, massacres are being covered up, and we watch Katniss Everdeen walk, repeatedly, through spaces functioning as mass graves. This is not a pretty picture, and the film's comfort with scenes that speak so visibly, so viscerally to death, to tragedy, to a type of holocaust, are jarring.
I suppose at this point it may help to drop a quick synopsis in for those not in the know. Where the first two entries into the series center around our heroine's unwilling place in the ritualized "Hunger Games," the third and fourth films leave those grounds, spurred by the rebellion Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has partially triggered in her refusal to play by the rules. Late in Catching Fire, she is saved by the underground dwellers of the supposedly vanquished District 13. Mockingjay part 1 opens within their bunker, with Katniss and her makeshift-cohort battle-scarred and shell-shocked. District 13 wants to use her as their "Mockingjay," their savior machine, a gladiatorial Joan of Arc to be held up in propaganda as a symbol. Katniss will guide the citizens of Panem toward active civil war until the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) no longer hold power.
Like many a teen-hero before her, Katniss is, more often than not, an unwilling figure in this revolution. Her moves are often motivated by personal response: what will this do for her family? How can she use their wants to save the people she loves? As she is brought out into the "real" world to see the carnage hidden from Capitol broadcasts, she becomes more and more affected by the devastation wrought. She is partially, accidentally responsible. This is primarily what the movie seeks to document, and what I'd argue makes it thoroughly unusual.
What Mockingjay Part 1 becomes is a movie about the behind the scenes politics of uprising and the designing of a war. We are treated to the lies and embellishments on both sides, and shown the way that even District 13's ethics frequently trend toward questionable. Katniss travels with a roving gang of documentarians led by an ambitious director, Cressida (Natalie Dormer), who barks leading questions in a street full of corpses. Cressida sees opportunities for stirring footage in the charred remains of lives and homes; she commands emotional responses from Katniss though she seems incapable of providing them herself. Everything the public sees is, to an extent, coached or stolen from Katniss's private reflective moments, and we are made to feel uneasy about this manipulation even as we cheer on our rebel forces.
While there are no scenes that empathize with the Capitol or President Snow (Donald Sutherland), there are plenty of scenes in the righteous District 13 that do give us pause. The motivations of rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) seem frequently to be a similar type of constructive rearrangement of information, and as the body count rises in the distance, it's hard not to notice how cold some of the responses are on each side. Katniss seems to notice. Katniss seems to suspect everyone around her, as she should. Still, she fights. Still, she cooperates. Still, she makes demands to protect, fiercely, those in her camp.
That the film's hero is essentially a mere figurehead with a few ballistic arrows is the first level at which Mockingjay seems to throw off our expectations for a blockbuster franchise. Her agency is restricted and challenged repeatedly, and in ways that she is forced to respond to and opt to either play against or with. This has been true of other protagonists, certainly, but it's rare to find a movie so willing to spend such a significant amount of time grounding these concerns in scene after scene of personal encounter and response. While many seem content to argue that it's this interest that brings the film down, I'd argue that it's exactly this attention to characterization and emotional reaction that lends the film its power. This is where I view the movie as - formally - a type of subversive act. Though it's likely that the decision to break the would-be trilogy's final act into two separate films was financially motivated on the part of the studios, the accidental side effect is that Mockingjay Part 1 has been granted the extraordinary gift of time.
What we get, then, instead of a slam-bang race to the finish line is something troubling and contemplative. Mockingjay does the impossible with its blockbuster status - it does not fill out its edges with effects or action sequences that confuse the central conflict, it uses the time its been given to dig deeply into its characters, into what they're seeing, and to paint a devastating picture of the suffering that grips their world. We're used to being told by movies like this that worlds are ending or that systems don't work. We're used to the vague sense, to pull a recognizable example, of Alderaan exploding, but we almost never made privy to the long-term trauma of living through that. We rarely see the devastation, and if we do, it's almost never with any sense of tragedy or respect for the dead. Mockingjay walks Katniss through war zones that look like war zones. It shows us mangled men, women, and children and asks that we feel for them instead of simply using them as a reason to forward our own drive toward pyrotechnic destruction. In a striking scene, Katniss - the most famous woman in all the land, a walking symbol - is brought to a bustling makeshift hospital in a fighting district. It's a publicity stunt, a way of getting real emotion out of her. While it works to that end, the film gets it right: no one immediately stops and stares. The world does not fall silent for Katniss in an instant. They are busy with their own struggles, with their own suffering, and though Katniss does represent hope for these people, we are never brought to see her as somehow more than them. The film knows her place and strives to make us see it.
We never worry simply for Katniss. We are made to understand and to feel for all of Panem. As we watch, it becomes all the more clear that Katniss is a figurehead, yet all the more pressing that she succeeds. She is frustrated by her lack of real power, as her drive to do good is complicated by the impossibility of a single-handed action actually accomplishing this. Instead, her power must be wielded unconventionally, and her victories must be small. As President Coin works to flash her about as a type of shiny bait for Snow's vengeance, we become all the more aware of just how good Katniss has had it. There's little reason for hope in Panem. Districts are decimated, children are being tortured, victors sold into human slavery. When even celebrated winners become pawns, it's a marvel that this film squeaks by with even a shred of optimism intact. That it does, that it is able to glean that want for justice, that understanding of what's possible even in the face of a wrenching, brutally dark conclusion speaks to its odd power.
This is a series that struggles, always, to be human first. This is a movie that confronts us with something heavy packaged, somehow, as entertainment. It succeeds on all counts: we want to know more, we are affected by what we watch, we are able to apply what we've received because we have been given is a fully formed idea understood not obliquely, but directly. Attentive viewers leave with the knowledge Katniss has accumulated which is to say - with an understanding of how the world works outside of mere fantasy. That, my friends, is one of those "bulletproof" ideas other dystopian movies (I'm looking at you, V for Vendetta) throw around but can't quite manage to articulate -- it's a seed of dissent, a shred of incredulity, a pessimistic question I hope will be placed in the mind of every audience member. When you get away with that in this kind of movie, that's worth paying attention to.