“A building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. Symbols are given power by people. Alone, a symbol is meaningless, but with enough people, blowing up a building can change the world.”
-V (V for Vendetta)
When I chose to see the first Hunger Games movie, it was mostly because everyone around me kept talking about this extraordinary book that meshed dystopian future with violent children. My interest was peaked because it sounded similar to the Japanese film by Kinji Fukasaku Battle Royale. Children are whisked away to a private island where they battle to the death. I’m not saying Suzanne Collins plagiarized Battle Royale, but Hunger Games was hardly an original idea. When I walked out of Hunger Games, I was neither impressed nor disappointed. The first two Hunger Games are fine films but were too reliant on action and the love triangle tropes to be above mediocre. Mockingjay, fortunately, does something completely different.
Gary Ross, who was previously known for films like Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, showed an acceptable eye for action, but it seemed the studio (maybe even Ross himself) was dead set on ignoring the true “golden nugget” of the franchise, Jennifer Lawrence. In Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence took over directing duties, and the focus started to shift slightly towards Jennifer Lawrence and the story. With the third installment, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is front and center. We could argue that this is because the story has changed, but that would be a disservice to her and the director.
Francis Lawrence does a great job of showing the gravity of the situation Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen is in. While we see more than enough action and destruction, the main focus of Mockingjay is the battle of propaganda and the fight for the people’s minds. This is an infinitely more interesting story than love triangles and silly action beats. Francis Lawrence uses the force that is Jennifer Lawrence to turn a mundane unoriginal story into a breathtaking performance, that at one point moved me to tears. That’s right- a Hunger Games movie made me shed a tear.
The rest of the cast does a fine job, but I’m just going to point out two performances. Julianne Moore (Magnolia) as President Alma Coin is stoic and at the same time off-putting. Her words are noble, but Moore’s performance points to something unworthy of blood shed. Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terabithia) has been the whipping boy of the series. He has put out consistently poor performances, but his turn as a broken Peeta is just as good as anyone else in the film not named Jennifer Lawrence.
What truly makes Mockingjay soar is the writing. Danny Strong was added to the writing team, and it shows. Danny Strong is probably best known as Jonathan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Strong has been writing amazing screenplays for years. His script for Recount in 2007 landed him at the top of Hollywood’s Black List. Danny Strong, Peter Craig, and Francis Lawrence bring this huge story back to Katniss. The story echoes many other dystopian films and possibly our own history. Seeing the choices with which Katniss is faced has a certain familiar ring to it. Thinking about our own Revolutionary War and patriots like Nathan Hale, who faced certain death, give this particular entry a more significant amount of emotional weight than the previous films. The film also highlights how wars aren’t just fought and won on the battlefield. Propaganda and manipulation through fear are just as important as bullets and bombs.
Mockingjay does have its holes. Outside of Jennifer Lawrence, the rest of the cast is fine, but that’s it. No one rises above their role, and no one steals scenes. After Catching Fire, I was hopeful for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s (The Master) Plutarch, but it is more than obvious that his real life problems were interfering with his performance. The action is still poorly shot, but probably the most grievous problem is that Lionsgate split this into two films. Choosing a blatant cash grab over making a well crafted coherent film can never be applauded.
Mockingjay is far and away my favorite Hunger Games film. The production, writing, and performances are more superior than the previous two films. Jennifer Lawrence continues to prove why she is quickly becoming the best actress in Cinema today. The political intrigue and subtle writing overshadow the sometimes poorly shot action. If the franchise can continue to top itself, maybe I can forgive Lionsgate for its greed, but one thing is for sure- I could watch Jennifer Lawrence read the telephone book.