“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” continues the franchise in grand fashion, expanding the action beyond the arena. Now, everyone is fighting. Katniss’ District 12 has been destroyed in a rebellion, and she has taken up refuge in District 13 led by the idealistic President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) was left behind when the rebels rescued Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) from the damaged arena in the last film. He’s now the main spokesperson for the Capital. Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) works with the rebellion now, helping once again to manipulate the masses through a series of propaganda videos streamed to the other districts. And Katniss must be convinced to become the face of the revolution.
The battle lines are drawn between the forces of the Capital, led by the cold and calculating President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and the rebellious District 13. The rebellion is being fought as much on television as it is through boots on the ground. But which side will Katniss choose? And can she trust President Coin?
From the trailers for “Mockingjay Part 1,” I gathered that Katniss was bound to become some kind of superhero in the mold of the Avengers’ Black Widow. After all, we see her in battle ready duds with a perfectly crafted bow and arrows that explode. Luckily, that fantasy is toned down quite a bit and what’s left is more show-business-hero than actual warrior. Sure, Katniss gets into the action, but like everything in this series, it is understood that her role is that of an actress on a stage broadcast to the masses via various television screens. And that central conceit is used to maximum potential here with much of the film filled with exposition about just how to make Katniss the Mockingjay hero of the rebellion.
The fact that Katniss is so reluctant to become the symbolic Mockingjay is why this fantasy works as well as it does. The ridiculousness of her costume and exploding arrows, especially given the modern military weaponry available (they do have guns and flying battleships, after all), is tempered by a feeling that so much of what we are watching is for effect and all part of a regularly scheduled television program. Binge viewing is encouraged.
The new additions to the cast gel with series regulars. Moore is always great, and here is given a role in transition that requires her character to sacrifice some of her idealistic principles to play more to the crowd. There is a nice contrast between the tributes and real military personnel. Mahershala Ali plays a military commander named Boggs, and you get the impression that he’s seen real combat. Boggs is both a calming and scary presence standing along side the muted Finnick (Sam Claflin), whose once peacock spirit has been crushed. And the puppet master Heavensbee is played very well by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Heavenbee’s interactions with Effie (Elizabeth Banks) provide some of the film’s best light comedic moments, exposing why these films have such lasting impact on viewers.
“The Hunger Games” series impressed me by taking a contrived and familiar premise and making it seem fresh and believable. My concern as the war elements reach their zenith was that the gritty realism that made the first and second films work would be abandoned in favor of hyper-action casting Katniss in the role of superhero. “Mockingjay Part 1” does not go that far. Instead, the action unfolds through discussion about the rebellion without seeing much of it or putting Katniss directly on the scarred battlefield. While she does get to shoot her exploding arrows at a flying fortress, one is constantly reminded that the games may not have ended and the masses are watching the show.
This review first appeared in print and online in the Times-Herald.