The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

Posted by Joel Copling on November 20, 2014

In one corner, we have the inherent problems that come with being half of a story. At least as it is coming to a close (or, more accurately, building to natural cut-off point until next November when it comes to an actual close), "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1" suffers from these issues. All of the build-up is to a series of moments, actions, probable sacrifices, and dramatic decisions that we do not see, and that is a fundamental problem more associated with a silly, studio-driven decision than with any fault of the screenwriters--Peter Craig and Danny Strong (working from the third novel of a series by Suzanne Collins)--themselves.

In the other corner, we have the build-up itself, which is the stuff of considerable worth. This is somber stuff--not in the recently trendy way of being falsely gritty, but in a genuine way that shows, rather than tells, that this is an apocalyptic world that has been ravaged even further by those in power. It helps that these films' heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is played by Jennifer Lawrence, an actress with strong command of grounding this fantastical world in a personal context in which it is easy to be invested. After two films (2012's "The Hunger Games" and 2013's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," which is still tops) of explosive, sometimes despairing depiction of the titular games themselves, it's almost a shock to see a major tentpole release focused so heavily on discussions, but those discussions are invigorating.

The talk arises as Katniss, still recovering from a near-death experience during the Quarter Quell games of the previous installment, becomes more involved in the revolution begun by the inhabitants of the long-thought-buried District 13, specifically by its makeshift president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), and Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Her job as the so-called "Mockingjay" (in symbolic reference to a type of native bird that acts as a parrot for whatever sound any human makes) is to pose for protest commercials, in which she will call for those who wish to protest to rally behind her. On the other side of the camera is the cold-as-his-surname President Snow (Donald Sutherland, still mightly impressive in a role that he could have treated as entirely beneath him), who orders massacres without blinking an eye as retaliation for Katniss's actions.

President Snow is, in this incomplete chapter, merely a figurehead against which the revolutionaries wish to work. The real drama is in the actions the rebellion takes to stop him, and it is here where the film shines. The film focuses so little on action sequences (The few there are mostly revolve around controlled chaos, and the only time a scene of combat could potentially occur, the action takes place off-screen) that it is rather jarring. It is a time, now, for words; actions will come later, the film keeps telling us. These characters discuss more than tactics, too; they discuss strategy (A handful of the Quarter Quell competitors thought dead, including Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark and, for a few wordless seconds, Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, are stuck in the Capitol, into which a team of soldiers must penetrate to rescue them) more than that strategy is acted out (The rescue sequence could potentially have devolved into a meaningless shootout, but director Francis Lawrence is smart enough to keep all of the action off-screen).

This is an intelligent film that engages the politics of revolution, rather than the actions of movie heroes and heroines. The performances are strong; apart from Lawrence, Hemsworth has some heartrending moments of great sadness upon seeing the remains of District 12 (his, Katniss's, and Peeta's home, which has been razed by the emotionless, faceless soldiers in President Snow's employ), Hutcherson grows paler and gaunter as the film progresses for reasons that afford a haunting element to the actor's performance (especially during a key confrontation in the final ten minutes), and Natalie Dormer has a small but kind of awesome appearance as a fellow revolutionary named Cressida. "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1" memorably builds to a third act that never comes, it is true, but like 2010's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" before it, the hint of better things to come is as potent as the build-up itself.

Film Information

Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Julianne Moore (President Alma Coin), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Mahershala Ali (Boggs), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Coriolanus Snow), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Natalie Dormer (Cressida), Elden Henson (Pollux), Wes Chatham (Castor), Evan Ross (Masalla), Paula Malcomson (Katniss's Mother), Sarita Choudhury (Egeria), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason).

Directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, based on the novel "Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins.

Rated PG-13 (intense violence/action, disturbing images, thematic material).

123 minutes.

Released on November 21, 2014.