If the first two “Hunger Games” movies were about reality TV and other bread-and-circuses distractions used by governments to keep the populace in line, “Mockingjay, Part 1” more explicitly examines the power of propaganda, as the action moves off the playing/killing fields of the Games and into the airwaves of a full-on revolution.
Bringing aboard Danny Strong (who co-adapts Suzanne Collins‘ novel with Peter Craig of “The Town”) was a wise move; Strong, after all, has shown a gift for taking the big ideas of politics and historical sweep and slicing them down to bite-size chunks, first in the HBO movies “Recount” and “Game Change” and then on the big screen with “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”
See photos: 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay' Posters Feature Rebel Leaders Liam Hemsworth, Natalie Dormer
“Mockingjay, Part 1” is still very much a “Hunger Games” movie, yes, but it calls to mind smart political comedies like “Wag the Dog” and “Tanner ’88” as well.
Fair-weather fans of the franchise might want to re-watch “Catching Fire,” or at least peruse the film’s Wikipedia page, before taking in this latest entry, which gets straight to business without the courtesy of a “Previously on…” Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been rescued from the games by Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated), but she’s upset about the other competitors left behind, particularly Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).
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It’s in his absence that Katniss realizes that the “show-mance” they concocted to stay alive in the Games may well have turned out to be the real thing; not even the presence of her childhood pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth) can keep her from fretting about Peeta’s safety.
Katniss and her family are now underground in the bunker that is District 13, where a rebel army run by Boggs (Mahershala Ali, “House of Cards”) has been entrenching itself and biding its time, waiting to unite the districts to overthrow the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the entire Capitol, which exploits the resources of the districts. Rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, with a Susan Sontag streak in her hair) thinks that Katniss and the symbol of the Mockingjay are the only hope of keeping the spirit of rebellion alive.
Early attempts to shoot staged propaganda around Katniss are a disaster, but the now-sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) suggests that she leave the studio and go out into the world where she can be spontaneous. Her interaction with the people leads to some powerful moments, captured on camera by director Cressida (Natalie Dormer, “Game of Thrones”), but President Snow has his own spokesman — Peeta, who urges the rebels to stand down.
If you’ve read the books, you know what’s coming, and if you haven’t, there’s no point in spoiling anything. Suffice it to say that while “Mockingjay, Part 1” might not be as consistently thrilling as “Catching Fire” — the second movie always has the luxury of being all PB&J and no crust — it’s the movie equivalent of a page-turner, consistently suspenseful and filled with surprises and illuminating character moments.
The series has let us know these people well enough by this point that it’s just fun to watch for details, like how Effie (Elizabeth Banks) manages to improvise her usual over-the-top couture out of the dull grey jumpsuits that are the uniform of District 13. It’s the kind of fashion savvy that prison drag queens and Little Edie Beale alike would admire.
See video: 'Hunger Games: Mockingjay' Clip: Jennifer Lawrence Meets 'Game of Thrones' Star Natalie Dormer
Returning director Francis Lawrence finds interesting visual moments, even in the underground bunker. At one point, Katniss looks down on rows and rows of rebels climbing down, down, down a metallic triangular staircase, and it’s like something out of “Metropolis.” That’s a pretty bold quotation to make for a film that’s also about a proletariat revolution, but even if “Mockingjay” isn’t on the level of that silent classic, it’s not an altogether inappropriate reference point.
The title lets you know we’re still one more movie away from the grand finale, but even if “Mockingjay, Part 1” leaves us wanting more, it’s not just two hours of build-up. Think of it as an amuse-bouche for a final course that manages to satisfy on its own.