Politics has always been at the heart of The Hunger Games, keyed to greater effect in Suzanne Collins’ novels than in the pair of film adaptation we’ve seen up to this point. That’s to be expected; the focus has largely been on the tournament of violence the volatile heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her maybe-love Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) find themselves thrust into by the despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland). But among all of the battles and love triangles, make no mistake that politics, specifically how governments collude with the media to keep the populace naive, was a big part of why this franchise resonates as much as it does. Have you watched the cable news lately? Don’t bother.
That Mockingjay maintains such a high level while evolving from a futuristic war film into a straight-up political thriller is an incredible achievement, even if it comes at the expense of the action some have come to expect. The “games” are different this time for Katniss, who has just been rescued by the rebellion after she literally blew up the Quarter Quell. Now she must face a twisted game of cat and mouse with President Snow, one in which he is more than happy to use a sickly, brainwashed Peeta as propaganda against her. But the rebels holed up in District 13’s underground bunker are just as savvy, and with the encouragement of President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final role), Katniss reluctantly agrees to become the “mockingjay” and lead the people of Panem in a battle against the Capitol.
Ironically, this is a movie about the power of the visual image to influence great societal change. Katniss isn’t the most natural leader, so the early attempts to mold her into one are dismal failures. It’s her now-sober mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) who suggests taking her out into the field where a film crew led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer) can document her every move, turning her escapades into political ads to rally the other Districts. Her return home to District 12, destroyed by a bombing raid that killed practically everyone, is especially gruesome and heart-wrenching, the crunch of broken bones beneath Katniss’ feet with every step. The ‘hunger games’ themselves are terrible, but it’s nothing compared to the true evil inflicted by Snow while he grins behind that white beard and curling sneer. There couldn’t have been a more perfect choice than Lawrence to play the strong, defiant Katniss, but let’s not overlook the amazing Donald Sutherland. He deserves to be mentioned right alongside Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort, Heath Ledger’s Joker, and whoever that guy was who played Darth Vader.
With Peeta firmly in the Capitol’s clutches, the love triangle takes a bit of a hiatus. It’s still there when we see Katniss’ lovelorn pal Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) comforting her as she pines for the deteriorating Peeta. The lack of romantic sparks actually works to Gale’s benefit as he finally starts to take shape as a real character, one with opinions that don’t necessarily conform to what Katniss expects. Others get their moments to shine, including Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) who is also anguishing over a lost lover; the eccentric inventor BeeTee (Jeffrey Wright) who has settled into his role as the rebels’ tech guy; and Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) who has found a way to turn the ugly rebel grey/black uniforms into something close to chic. Incoming screenwriter Danny Strong, who knows a thing or two about political movies having penned Recount and Game Change for HBO, subtly tweaks each character to reflect the war-torn world they find themselves in now.
Those expecting Mockingjay part 1 to be just like Catching Fire may be disappointed, though. The thrills are of a different sort, and there isn’t the “who’s going to die next?” mystery hanging over every scene. Katniss remains at the center but this is about how she copes with having leadership thrust upon her, not how many Tributes she can fire an arrow into. It’s another outstanding, complex performance by Lawrence who shows Katniss’ vulnerability early on before igniting the rebel cause as the “girl on fire” later on. It doesn’t seem to matter what role she’s in, we can’t help but feel a connection to her.
Francis Lawrence returns as director after helming ‘Catching Fire’, and it can’t be overstated how the franchise has improved since the departure of Gary Ross. Not that Ross was terrible; he set the groundwork and Lawrence has taken it to a whole new level. By necessity there is less visual dazzle than before, but he still manages to flesh out the technologically advanced world of Panem in a way that is relatable.
There’s more Mockingjay to come, of course, and the sequel promises to be all-out war. The first chapter ends on one heck of a nasty cliffhanger that does exactly what it’s supposed to which is leave us anxious to see what’s next.