The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 features the most self-reflexive sequence of any Hollywood blockbuster I’ve seen all year. As you probably know, this is the third entry in a franchise adapted from Suzanne Collins’s best-selling young-adult novels, set in a dystopian future where citizens are distracted from government oppression by televised gladiator games in which young people fight to the death. In Mockingjay—Part 1, rebel propagandists have recruited Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), once a victor in the games, to appear in a fictitious newsreel; like the star of a contemporary Hollywood epic, she stands on a bare set, shouting slogans to an imaginary army of insurgents who will be inserted digitally into the shot.
Katniss falters again and again in her delivery, finding it hard to address people who aren’t there. (One suspects this sort of thing happens all the time when actors have to perform before green screens to invisible crowds.) The filmmakers call for a break and convene in a boardroom like Hollywood marketing executives, brainstorming how to make the young woman seem more authentic onscreen. Eventually one rebel hits on the idea that she be herself rather than conform to the image of hardened warrior. “The people like it when she’s unscripted!” he says.
The sequence harkens back to moments in the previous Hunger Games films, in which government spin doctors coached Katniss to make her the “star” of the games. Many have noted that the series can be read as both a left-wing and a right-wing allegory, the despotic government representing either a fascist dictatorship or an overweening liberal administration. For me this open-ended quality doesn’t suggest a commitment to moral ambiguity so much as a clever way of appealing to multiple demographics. Mockingjay seems to acknowledge the commercial machinations that have made the series a whopping success. Once the rebels get their hands on Katniss, they refer to her as their symbol and encourage her to think of herself as such—can it be coincidence that the image of her they use in their propaganda campaign is the same one that’s all over Mockingjay‘s promotional materials? Over the course of the film one realizes that the insurgency is just as ruthless as the government in manipulating popular opinion. This is the most cynical development yet in a remarkably cynical series, implying that anyone who aspires to political leadership is more concerned with power and public image than with causes. Whereas the previous entries in the series appealed to liberals and conservatives alike, this one manages to insult them both.