The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 ★★★½

"The Hunger Games" (2012) and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (2013) had as their primary focus the Hunger Games themselves; i.e., reality television taken to the extreme as a means for a dictator—that would be President Snow (Donald Sutherland)—to keep his subjects in fear and under control. "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1", however, is a different kind of film, no longer concerned with the Games but instead with politics, propaganda, and rebellion. More specifically, this movie is largely about the making and use of propaganda as a weapon in a conflict.

The rebellion is a fact. After the dramatic climax of the previous film, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in District 13, where she is asked to become the symbol of the resistance, to become the Mockingjay. But with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) being held captive in the Capitol and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) having joined the rebellion as a soldier, Katniss has other priorities. Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the President of District 13 and the leader of the resistance, and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman; may he rest in peace) do eventually convince a reluctant Katniss to participate in their propaganda shots by letting her see with her own eyes what President Snow did to District 12, her district, in the wake of the prematurely ended 75th Hunger Games. Katniss’s decision is made easier by her seeing Peeta being used by the Capitol as a propaganda tool. As the propaganda war intensifies and President Snow turns to increasingly violent and insidious methods in an effort to quell the uprising, a risky operation to rescue Peeta and the other imprisoned victors gets underway.

Surprisingly, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is more interested in discussions of strategy than in action and adventure. Given the amount of action in the previous movies in the franchise, this might be considered a weakness, but the fact of the matter is that the emphasis on the resistance’s planning and preparing for war against the Capitol actually increases the dramatic power of the film. Add to that a nuanced depiction of good versus evil and some provocative themes, and the result is an intellectually stimulating movie.

Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong put the inherent limitations of adapting one book—in this case, Suzanne Collins’s novel of the same name (minus the “Part 1” bit, obviously)—into two movies to work for them. Instead of rushing things along, the filmmakers adopt a generally deliberate pace that lets the returning characters develop and the new ones be introduced in an unforced way. Alas, the plot doesn’t really advance much between the first frame and the last, so the narrative flow takes a hit in this installment.

While "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1" as a whole isn’t as viscerally engaging as its predecessors, individual scenes are among the most emotional ones that the film series has offered to date. There’s a powerful scene that shows Katniss visiting a makeshift hospital full of wounded people in District 8. Minutes later, she gives a rousing speech in response to the aftermath of an air strike by the Capitol on the hospital in question. Another highlight is a beautiful, serene scene set by a lake; here, Katniss movingly sings a song called "The Hanging Tree". The following scene, which features an attack on a hydroelectric dam in District 5, is excellently staged to have the biggest possible impact on the viewer, and it certainly had the intended effect on me. A suspenseful rescue sequence that comes near the end of the movie allows film editors Alan Edward Bell and Mark Yoshikawa’s work to shine.

As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence gives an even more layered performance here, as the heroine of the story agrees to play the part of the central figure of the rebellion and thereby increases the weight of the mental burden she has to carry. Hutcherson and Hemsworth are both solid, with Hemsworth’s Gale finally getting in on the action. Giving her character just a hint of possibly having an ulterior motive, Moore is very convincing in the role of the strong and determined President Coin. Sutherland’s pitch-perfect acting makes President Snow a wonderfully menacing presence throughout the proceedings. Natalie Dormer appears in a small but memorable role as Cressida, a film director from the Capitol who has joined the rebels. Stanley Tucci delivers an appropriately restrained performance as Caesar Flickerman, whose show in this movie differs significantly from the one he hosted in the previous two chapters.

Being the first part of a two-part franchise finale, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1" unavoidably suffers from incompleteness due to all the setting up going on over the course of its 123-minute running time, with the big payoff not coming until the release of the fourth and final entry in the series. The film necessarily lacks a proper climax and ending, yes, but it proves to be one of the best two-part movies yet.