"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.