Lawrence (front) channels Katniss' anger.
Chopping the final novel of the Hunger Games trilogy into two segments, Mockingjay Part 1 and Mockingjay Part 2, was a surprisingly brilliant decision. A similar approach led to the terrible Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2010. Peter Jackson isn't even finished with his Hobbit series, and he's already shown that J.R.R. Tolkien's short-ish novel shouldn't have been turned into three long films. So why does this approach work for The Hunger Games? Long story short, it looks like it will yield the best possible ending.
The "games" part of the story has played out by the start of Mockingjay Part 1. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), reluctant heroine of District 12, has been snatched from the arena where impoverished teenagers compete in a to-the-death battle for the amusement of the Capitol's overlords. She accidentally inspired a nation of downtrodden serfs in the dystopian nation of Panem to start an uprising. Now the rebel leaders of District 13 want to use her to ignite a civil war.
From the beginning, the Hunger Games series has addressed the power of propaganda and the media's capability to tell stories that sway hearts and minds. With Mockingjay Part 1, the films continue to trump the novels they're based upon. The books are told from Katniss' first-person perspective, in present tense, which brings intimacy to the tale but fails to offer us a larger view of Katniss' world. In the films, we can see how other characters use Katniss to further their own agendas, and the cultural impact of those actions.
The extraordinary thing about Mockingjay Part 1 is that the rapacious Capitol and evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) aren't the ones offering Katniss as a public inspiration. The guilty parties are the leaders of District 13, including President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and former Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has defected from the Capitol leadership. Katniss may agree with their aims of overthrowing the Capitol, but watching propaganda's power unfurl is startling and horrifying.
A terrific early sequence illustrates this while showing off Lawrence's remarkable acting skills. We saw in the previous films how Katniss was pretty good at pretending to be something she wasn't, such as "hopelessly in love with Peeta," her Hunger Games teammate. Yet here we see how awful she is at forcing herself to show emotion she agrees with intellectually but does not feel. She's completely unconvincing as she enters a sound studio and shouts lines about freedom and rebellion Heavensbee has scripted. But once Katniss to visit wounded residents of a district the Capitol has bombed, she feels her anger. Lots of complicated and intriguingly contradictory events unfold as Katniss' rage gets turned into a product.
Cutting the Mockingjay book into two films lends Part 1 an appealing Empire Strikes Back feel, complete with a devastating cliffhanger. But I'm confident that Mockingjay Part 2 will deliver a satisfying conclusion to one of the smartest, most enthralling sci-fi film series I've ever seen.