Surely there has to be a better way.
That was my non-stop thought through the whole of the viewing of Mockingjay Part I, a brilliant addition to the Hunger Games series.
It picks up where the last film left off. Katniss has destroyed the game arena and emerges under the protection of the rebels living deep in a bunker in District 13. She reluctantly works with the rebels and their leader President Coin to push the revolution further and rescue her beloved Peeta from captivity in the capitol city.
In past films, there is the romance of revolution, the dream of standing up to ghastly tyranny through resistance and rebellion. We all imagine ourselves to be with Katniss and the rebels, hoping that if we were there, we would do the same.
Down with the tyrants and up with the power of the people!
The solution to the problem in the last film was for Katniss to shoot an arrow through the dome of the games themselves and destroy them all. That impressed us mostly because it was smart and not brutal. It destroyed government property but didn’t necessarily cost lives. It ended a source of misery while not creating more. She had been told that “every system has a flaw” and she found that flaw and exploited it. There is everything to like about this approach to revolution.
In the newest film, that romance evaporates. So much for smart solutions. This film is all about blood for blood and destruction for destruction. It’s their guns vs. our guns. Power vs. power. The “civil war” that ensues is surely more violent than anyone could have anticipated. The amount of sheer social calamity shown in this film takes your breath away.
You might try to think “this is the price we pay for freedom” but the price is high beyond belief. District 12 is in ruins. Other districts are held hostage and variously bombed from the air. The rebels do not have the support of the masses of people, and so they must make propaganda films to cause others to join. But everyone who does join becomes a target and most die a grim death.
Surely there is a better way.
We have to admire Katniss, in part, because she is a very reluctant revolutionary. Her main goal in life is the preservation of the life of her mother, sister, and true love Peeta. The grand cause of revolutionary upheaval doesn’t quite resonate with her, even though she never doubts the justice of it all.
Something else hangs over this film: a strange sense that something is not altogether right about the rebel group. The leader of the group is herself rather creepy, and you gradually gain the suspicion that she aspires to rule, just as President Snow does now. Yes, she promises eventual rule by the people and a nation of cooperation rather than violence, but everyone is in the position of taking her word for it. Her lack of humility is also disturbing, as is the manner in which she absorbs the personal credit for every victory.
But doesn’t every revolution need such people in order to succeed? Probably. And that’s the real problem. The winners of the revolution become the next power structure in place after the bad guys have been tossed out. Sometimes the successors are worse than those who were overthrown. This is what happened in the United States, in France, and in Russia in the early 20th century, as well as the waves of resistance movements that hit the Middle East during the Arab Spring.
Even the anti-socialist revolutions of 1989 and 1990 had mixed results. One group of bad guys were thrown out and another group of bad guys came to power quickly after. Is it worth it?
Thinking back to the most perfect revolution of all — 1776! — we do have to wonder. The elites who imposed the Constitution a few years later were made up of supposed war heroes, financiers, and bond dealers who achieved their fame in the course of the revolution. Only a quarter of a century later, there were speech controls and the need for another revolution was ridiculously obvious.
The difference between a genuine revolution and a coup d’etat is notoriously difficult to discern. King George, President George, who cares really? I’ll put up with the ermine robes if it means lower taxes and less surveillance.
Every American from the beginning has been schooled in the glories of revolution, even as the government lives in unrelenting fear of it. Meanwhile, every radical political group fantasizes about the meaning and prospects of real revolution, even as the public culture decries such thoughts as profoundly evil. The contradiction here is weird.
Mockingjay Part I should give every would-be revolutionary pause. You can’t watch this and cheer at any aspect of the consequences. The State needs to be overthrown — in all times and all places — but surely there are smarter, better, and more peaceful ways to go about it that don’t result in new war-hero despots assuming new power.
Violent revolution? No principled person can fail to consider it as an option. In the end, no decent person can possibly pursue it as a reality.