No hunger, no games, just a brutal civil war, with Katniss now the rebel icon; the Mockingjay. For a ‘teen movie’ the post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq, post-Arab Spring and mid-Ukraine mood is shocking, the outlook bleak and the politics more so.
Suzanne Collins’ acute source material translates provocatively to the screen. If Hunger Games was Battle Royale and Catching Fire was Rollerball, then Mockingjay becomes Broadcast News. The revolution will definitely be televised.
The Sparticus slave rebellion promised in Hunger Games and Catching Fire is shifted to the devastated districts of an utterly corrupt state more mindful of Syria.
Rescued by rebel game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, playful Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence; American Hustle, X-Men) finds herself in the rebel base deep below the razed District 13.
The proposition is for Katniss to become the rebel rallying point and counter to Peeta (a wonderfully restrained performance by Josh Hutcherson) now a political hostage in the Capitol forced to broadcast propaganda for the evil empire.
Mockingjay Part I is the difficult third episode in what has become a four-part trilogy; on the one hand, a calculatedly cynical money-making exercise, with Lionsgate splitting the final book of the series in two (Deathly Hallows, anyone?). On the other, we get far more time for character development. While there is action, there is plenty of time for everyone to have a good cry, particularly the PTSD-afflicted Katniss, Finick (Sam Klaflin, Pirates’ On Stranger Tides) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), resigned to losing out in the love triangle with Katniss and Peeta.
Katniss struggles to find a voice in her counter-propaganda role, until a visit to under-seige district 8 ends with the deliberate bombing of a hospital. This is the point her righteous anger fills her futuristic Joan of Arc costume and fires up her drive for vengeance.
Mockingjay is unflinching in its portayal of the effects of war; District 12 and District 8 looking like the Chechen capitol after the Russians left. Incinerated civilians lie amid the rubble like the Road of Death from the first Gulf war.
The supporting cast turn in super performances; from Haymich – the ever-charismatic Woody Harrelson (No Country for Old Men, Now You See Me) – still the mentor despite his enforced sobriety; Elizabeth Banks is the comic relief Effie Trinkett, ‘liberated’ from the Capitol to the hellish world of jumpsuits and low couture.
Also new in the mix, Julianne Moore (A Single Man, Magnolia) is the driven rebel President-elect, an iron lady who has lost too much to turn back now and has an admirable line in pep-rally speeches.
Final mention goes to veteran Donald Sutherland as President Snow, who has elevated his corrupt elder statesman act to something beyond any movie villain of recent times. A repellent mix of Stalin, Caucescu and the Roman Emperors (no accident his given name is Coriolanus), it is perhaps his best work in years with none of his stock chequebook acting and a reminder of his standing.
Just as Battlestar Galactica was voted best political series of all time ahead of West Wing, so Mockingjay may well go down as one of the great political movies. Okay, so the progress of the rebellion and its suppression may be as predicably cliched as the Imperial Stormtroopers in their white battle armour, and the rebel base is very Star Wars; but through its anguished twists and turns, Mockingjay Part I is a powerful piece of work that may just engage a jaded younger generation in politics far more effectively than any class project or news bulletin.
Hold on for Part II. RC
Mockingjay Part I (2014)
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Suzanne Collins, Danny Strong, Peter Craig
Genre: Drama, Action/Adventure, Science fiction
Running time: 148 minutes
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Dormer
Related: The Maze Runner (2014)