'The Greatest Showman' Review, Pt. 1

'The Greatest Showman' Review, Pt. 1

A Failure of Historical Fantasy

"The Greatest Showman" is a movie that audiences loved but I did not. Putting aside the songs (they’re fine) and choreography (it’s good), the movie’s storyline is a mess that undermines the values it tries to uphold and botches historical detail to make itself marketable.

For the purposes of this article, however, I’ll forego historicity as a means of critiquing the story. This puts all creative responsibility in the filmmakers’ hands—at no point can they justify a weak plot point because “it happened in real life.” Telling the real story doesn’t matter. Telling a good fictional story does. I contend that, even apart from the facts of history, the narrative of "The Greatest Showman" does not hold up. It is neither a truthful real-life story nor a good fictional one.

Most of my lines of criticism intersect in the song, “This Is Me,” the film’s anthem of self-acceptance and empowerment. On its own, the song works. Within the story, it doesn’t. Barnum has just snubbed Lettie Lutz and her fellow circus freaks to gallivant with high society. They are justifiably hurt. He had presented himself to them as a sincere friend only to take advantage of their work and move up in the world without them. So what do they do to assert themselves—to prove that they won’t let some smooth-talking charlatan walk over them?

They quit Barnum’s circus and form their own!

Just kidding. They don’t quit. In fact, the song features the freaks huffily returning to Barnum’s circus, which… doesn’t empower them at all. They’re still making Barnum wealthy and letting him treat them like dirt. Even while the circus members sing, “I’m not scared to be seen / I make no apologies,” they are clearly scared to leave Barnum’s circus and engage with the world on their own terms. They have no way to retaliate or help themselves. The most they can do is send the message, “We’ll get back to work… but we won’t be happy about it!”

This is where the story’s relationship with history becomes tricky. It would be easy to say that the circus freaks don’t leave Barnum in the movie because they didn’t leave him in real life, but the movie already defies real life on a number of fronts. It isn’t a documentary—it’s an intentional reimagining of history. Why, then, would it be too anarchic to allow the circus freaks to strike out on their own? This would not only demonstrate their self-acceptance and empowerment visibly—it would also teach Barnum that his workers can and will walk out on him when he abuses their trust.

Nonetheless, the plot insists that the freaks stay under Barnum’s thumb. This decision serves only one purpose: to empower Barnum. The rest of Barnum’s arc—dealing with his fake affair, re-establishing the circus after the fire, handing off his position to Carlyle—revolves around his continued ownership of the circus. He never faces real, lasting consequences for his misconduct. The most he has to do later is offer a brief apology that his workers accept right away. Why don’t they question his sincerity? He’s lied to them for personal gain before—why wouldn’t he lie again?

Thus, “This Is Me” represents the hypocrisy of the film as historical fantasy: it claims to empower the underrepresented and oppressed, but in reality, it only empowers the title character. Barnum pulls all the strings. His workers don’t have the agency to leave him or even really confront him. Besides his wife, neither does anyone else. Even in promotional posters, Barnum is placed in the center under bright lighting while the circus members are to the side or in the shadows. Their stories are crushed by his story.

The movie’s failure as liberating fiction only becomes worse in light of the facts of history, which I’ll discuss in further detail next week.


Cover Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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To the guy that shot my brother...


To the guy that shot my brother,

On January 9, 2019 my families entire life changed with one phone call. The phone call that my little brother had been shot in the face, no other details. We didn't need any other details. The woman on the phone who called us in full panic told us where he was so we went, as soon as possible. I don't think it helped that not even 10 min prior I talked to Zach on the phone.. kind of irritated with him, and the ONE TIME I didn't say 'I love you' as we hung up. Could've been the last time we ever spoke.. I remember pulling up to the hospital thinking 'this can't be real' 'it's not our Zach' 'this is just a dream Sarah, WAKE UP' I'd close my eyes really tight just to open them, I was still in the hospital emergency parking lot. I could still hear the ambulance sirens coming. It was all real.

The day our life's changed was definitely a test of faith. A test of how strong we were, as a family. I sat in that waiting room ready to see the damage that has been done to my sweet baby brother. Because at that point we had no idea how lucky he got. That glimpse of seeing Zach will haunt me forever. How helpless I felt in that exact moment frequently wakes me up from these horrific dreams I've been having ever since that day. That is a moment burned into my me and families brain forever.

You always hear about these things in the movies or on the news, a house being shot up, someone shooting another innocent person, not to care if they died on your watch. But we found ourselves on the news.. We have been confined to the hospital since that day. Running on barely any sleep, taking shifts of sleep so we don't make ourselves sick taking care of Zach. Watching him suffer. Undergoing surgeries, to repair the damage you did.

Before I proceed let me tell you a little something about the man you shot.

Zachary Keith Wright. A blonde hair blue eyed boy. Who could potentially be the most annoying human on the planet (possibly coming from his sister). A man who loves his God first, loves his family second. Perfect by no means, but almost perfect to me. A 19 year old who was to graduate high school this month. After graduation he was prepping to leave for Marine boot camp in the summer.. being in the military has been Zach's dream since he could talk. Literally. Running around, playing war with underwear on our heads, and finger guns. Some would say we looked like natural born assassins.. growing up he has been a country boy. Let me tell ya country to the core. He loves this country like he loves his family. He believes in helping people, taking charge in what's right, and never leaving a brother behind. He's lived by that his whole life. Until now....

The day you shot him. The day not only did you change my brothers life, you changed his families life too. The day you almost ripped my brother out of this world... for what? A misunderstanding? Because you've let something take ahold of your life that you can't let go you're willing to kill someone innocent over? Luckily for him, his guardian angels were protecting him in your time of cowardice. There were 3 times that day he should've died, the time you shot him, the time you tried to shoot him again as he stared you directly in the face, (even tho he couldn't talk I know you could read his eyes, and he still intimidated you. That's why you tried to pull the trigger again) and the time he was running out of the house. But he lived. A man who was shot in the face, didn't lay there helpless, didn't scream in agony. That MAN walked to the neighbors to get help. Why? Because he's a MAN, and because he's on this earth for a reason.

It's gonna sound a little strange not only to you, but the audience who is reading this. I must say thank you. Even in this situation, this was the best outcome we could get. He gets to live. He will make a full recovery. He will graduate. And he will go off into the Marines. You united my family together. Closer than ever. Thank you. You tested our faith and brought us closer to our God. Thank you. Because of your moment of weakness, you showed us what prayer could do. Heal anything. Thank you. This was a bump in the road, and a helluva way to kick off our year of 2019. But here we are.. all laying in the hospital. I'm looking around as mom is sleeping in her recliner chair exhasted but still here, Zach his awake playing his xbox all hooked up to machines, fighting to heal and get better. And of course I'm writing this letter to you.

See you in trial,

From the girl whose brother you shot.

'Fight the good fight' - 1 Tim 6:12 🤟🏼💙

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