Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1”

Wait what? So you scrolled to the bottom of this film review to check the score to see what gush or venom that you’re going to imbibe by reading, and there was nothing? Could it be that bad? Surely not. You’re probably thinking, ‘this is JLAW bitch’ and this series is ‘the damned exception to the rule for both young adult fiction adaptations and female lead franchises.’

You’re right on both counts; however I want you to imagine that you’re watching Oscar winning biblical epic Ben Hur and you see Charlton Heston survive the ocean battle and rescue his captor, and instead of seeing the inter-title ‘INTERMISSION’ a title pops up that said, ‘Ben Hur Part 1’. Or perhaps just as Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone guns down the Capt. McClusky (Sterling Hayden) and Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) in Louis Restaurant, fade to black and GODFATHER Part 1 – 1 of 2 appears on the screen.

Or, more appropriately still, James Cameron had the audacity to fade to black and say, ‘TITANIC Part 1’ as that thick accented Brit shouts “iceberg dead ahead!” The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is an incredible beginning to an epic final chapter to the series. It should not have ever been released as a stand-alone film and it feels like the filmmakers know it.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” ended with a dismantling of the Quarter Quell. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) had been rescued by the rebels, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) was captured by the Capital. In that final defiant glance, we knew that Panem was on the verge of war. “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” begins with a battle for the hearts and minds of Panem, with the ‘Mockingjay’ as the propaganda tool.

Writers Peter Craig (“The Town”) and Danny Strong (“Game Change,” “The Butler”) do a tremendous job of adapting Suzanne Collins’ dense and suitably horrific source material. They’re able to encapsulate the machinations of using propaganda tools to inspire the masses in a way that doesn’t bore you into a stupor ala The Phantom Menance’s forty-five minute trade tariff debate.

It’s engaging and even at times, as they begin to take the advice of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) about how to harness Katniss’ ‘magic,’ it’s even funny. It also gets to levels of bleak that are normally reserved for historical war fiction. Cityscapes laid to waste with the populations scorched and rotting in amongst the rubble. Citizens seeking refuge from aerial bombardment in the dark recesses of deep bunkers that conjure such real terror that you can almost feel the walls of the cinema throttling you in your seat. Scores of wounded innocents on the home front surviving in temporary hospitals that are also targeted in air strikes to taunt the rebellion into a response.

Director Francis Lawrence has the budget and clearly the unflinching approach to the material to steadily arc his camera over the carnage. There’s no quick cutting to imply violence here. The pristine President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is being revealed as the vile sadistic warlord that had only ever been half mentioned in whispers before now. One of the most outlandish touches from Snow and the Capital (besides the wasteland of District 12 or the hospital of District 8) is that in the wake of the District 13 base being pounded into a crater it’s showered with white roses. Snow is like the Chinese government and the Google; he does these things without any knowledge of the capital.

Sutherland feels like he’s just absolutely relishing the opportunity to bare his character’s fangs after two films of being the unshakable public figure and the mildly annoyed private one when Katniss Everdeen happened. In the same mould as authoritarian dictators like the maniacal Joseph Stalin, he continues to smile alongside public figures whose families and friends he’s murdered in order to keep them smiling for him.

The biggest addition to the cast this time around comes in the form of the grey haired and understated Julianne Moore as President Coin, the leader of the rebels. She realises that she needs the ‘Mockingjay’ to give a face to enlist the cause. She’s an underground warrior, unsophisticated in political trade-craft and she’s trusting the judgement of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s double agent Plutarch. Hoffman’s final character is a far more supportive one that he was implied in Catching Fire. If you’ve seen how dark he can get (Mission Impossible 3, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) it’s a huge gear shift to be President Coin’s entire West Wing cast rolled into almost one. Knowing that this film (as a whole) will be a final time you see the great man really stings. The other is clearly Jeffrey Wright’s Beetee, who enables their rogue propaganda signal to infiltrate the Capital, when he can overcome the technological barriers that he designed. A tiny role, filled by yet another lauded performer.

Harrelson and Banks bring some much needed comic relief in either Haymitch’s no ‘B.S’ assessments of Katniss not being able to be manipulated like a puppet or complaining about being forced to give up his boozing ways. While Banks’ Effie is a ‘political refugee’ that finds some kind of solace in attempting to fill the confidant position that Cinna once did. Watching her struggle in the drab khaki of the hive of soldiers in the District 13 underground society, and yet making the most of it, is like a little trivial island away from the reality of civil war.

Liam Hemsworth’s Gail is finally alongside Katniss for longer than the minutes of the previous films and shows that he’s an integral a part of the Rebellion. From The Hunger Games and Catching Fire there’s been a strained love triangle – Gail, Katniss and Peeta – however in the wake of two Hunger Games, Peeta’s kidnapping and Katniss’ clear post-traumatic stress, Gail stands aside to let Katniss chose Peeta. Hemsworth plays wounded and protective quite well, but when he’s forced to play across from much more established and experienced performers, he feels too rigid.

Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta suffered from having the emotional range of an inanimate object in the previous films but in Mockingjay he annihilates those from your mind. Snow is using Peeta in a series of interviews with Caeser (Stanley Tucci) as a counter propaganda to the Mockingjay. As the interviews progress you see the masked effects of physical torture and starvation. When we finally encounter him in person it’s the most visceral and affecting scene of the film.

Jennifer Lawrence is the only actor of her age equipped to convey Katniss’ burden. War, the psychological effects of multiple Hunger Games, the great responsibility of being the facade of the cause. She’s constantly toeing the line of an emotional outburst or fierce irrational reaction. She’s shifting in the quicksand of denial, constantly trying to sabotage the cause for getting back to Peeta. The battle for her own heart and mind is as significant as the people of Panem. And just when you thought this girl had it all as a performer, she’s tasked to sing a Panem folk song that’s eventually a catch cry for the cause. Her voice is staggeringly good.

At the end of Mockingjay Part 1, you get reminder inter-title as if to plead to reserve judgement and curb frustration that we’re not going to see the entire picture. Make no mistake The Hunger Games: Mockingjay is going to be one hell of a film. In its current form as Mockingjay Part 1, it’s half of one.