In ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1’, Propaganda Wins

Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) looks thin and broken. His face framed closely during a Capitol TV interview, he answers questions about his current contentment, his enduring love for Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), and his determination that the rebellion is wrong. As he speaks, his extremely pointy future-fashionated tie pokes his throat. It looks painful, but not nearly so painful as watching Katniss watch him, her eyes teary, her jaw taut, the camera low so as to emphasize her agony. Frozen before the screen, she doesn’t notice that everyone in the cafeteria in the now-underground District 13 is watching her. “What have they done to him?” she asks aloud.

This dynamic forms a pattern in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, where you watch someone watching someone while being watched by someone. It’s not a bad idea, either, given that the Hunger Games, even if no one plays them per se in this third installment, are all about watching, as the viewers in Panem watch orchestrated reality TV mayhem, distracted from their own poverty and lack of agency. Of course, you’re also distracted by what you watch, thrilled or encouraged by Katniss’ transformation from subdued victor into hero of the revolution. What’s striking about the transformation is how similar the two roles are: both regimes call on Katniss to perform on TV, to lead people into conformity by looking like an independent thinker.

This is, of course, PR 101, and the Hunger Games franchise is famously attentive to such machinations, the effects of propaganda even when it looks like propaganda. As, at the beginning of this film, Katniss wakes up from the knockout delivered to her at the end of the last film, she finds herself in a survivalist colony where the predominant lesson learned from being bombed by the noisy storm trooper forces of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) appears to be that TV sways the masses. At least this is what you hear from 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore) and her man in charge of propaganda, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who see Katniss just as Snow does, a persuasive icon just waiting to be framed and lit and costumed. While Snow’s shows were artificial by design, with the fire and the glitter and the wigs, Team 13 means theirs to look real, to place Katniss in war zones, leading smudgy-faced fighters, surrounded by ruins from which to rise.

At first, the idea is to green-screen the war zones, using Katniss in “propos”, videos designed to rally the folks who watch TV to touch their chests and raise their fingers in signs of the mockingjay, resisting Snow’s platitudes and refusing to engage in the Hunger Games proper. Yet all such performances remain a game, as Katniss recognizes early on while watching Peeta on TV. So that you don’t miss the point, she murmurs, “He’s still playing the Game!”, you know, just like she once thought she was doing when interviewed by the ever Andy Cohen-like Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).

Katniss’ self-awareness carries with it some costs, however, namely she’s not convincing on set. No matter that Coin and Plutarch enlist their fidgety prisoner Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and the sadly but also brilliantly sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) to create the image. No matter that they’re working from a sketchbook left behind by dead Cenna (Lenny Kravitz, whom you miss more than you might have guessed) as well as gadgets devised by Q, er, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright). As glorious as Katniss appears in her tight black superhero getup, with quiver on her back, she’s unconvincing on set — you know, like the Hunger Games movies.

Haymitch and Plutarch conclude that the best way to make Katniss seem real is make her feel bad. So they send her forth into carnage and chaos, with a director, Cressida (Natalie Dormer), who asks probing questions from off-screen (“How do you feel now?”) and instructs her camera operators to zoom in when Katniss walks into a makeshift hospital lined with bloody, dying, anonymous citizens (as with Scarlett O’Hara in Atlanta, wide shots ensure you see what she doesn’t quite) or she when makes a remarkably well-crafted impromptu speech condemning Snow’s violence (like almost any movie where the hero rouses the common people). When 13 puts the footage together with swelling music and graphics exhorting the fight, the propos look pretty much like Snow’s.

That Katniss doesn’t see this comparison right away is one way to drag out her story, so one book becomes two movies. But repetitive close-ups in The Hunger Games: Mockingbird – Part 1, as well as in the propos, indicate that her earnest pondering is also the movie’s version of what the propos, rallying the folks — you — to want her to do the right thing, whether this means fighting Snow, fighting Coin, or fighting fighting. Like the other movies in the franchise, this one has it both ways, as it critiques and becomes propaganda, here in the form of TV (again, PR 101).

That a primary component of this formula is the cool girl’s choice between two boys only makes the trap more depressing. From their start, The Hunger Games movies have hit that emotional note, pitting Peeta against Gale (Liam Hemsworth, looking downright mournful here), distracting Katniss with young-adultish emotional havoc. Whether it distracts you is the question. She believes what she sees on TV because she doesn’t believe it: watching Peeta, urging her to understand that “killing is not the answer”, she guesses that something’s wrong. (After all, the Hunger Games he now seems to support are exactly that, killing as the answer). As she watches him, and you watch her, she sees that he might be speaking directly to her or that he might not. Her capacity for believing makes her the ideal TV viewer, even as she’s the ideal TV image.

RATING 5 / 10