Many of us went there, to the theatre, to see “The Greatest Showman” on the big screen. I, for one, went twice to get the full experience while I could. That was a spectacle worth watching more than just once.
Some reviewers have spent time writing scathing reports on the historical inaccuracy, the lack of plot and character development or the portrayal of P. T. Barnum as a hero. One non-professional article that has been circling around Facebook by critic Courtney Simross went so far as to claim that the film is a glorification of freak shows and public display of disability (Freak Shows Aren’t Over: A Review of “The Greatest Showman”).
Meanwhile, fans across the internet protest that the genius of the music and the cinematography make up for what has shown to be lacking in these other respects. Further, the message of the movie is a seemingly good one, of family values and appreciation of differences.
Where can we, as Catholic and Christians, stand regarding a movie that has become the topic of such debates involving not merely a question of plot and character standards, but civil rights and morality?
I think it’s important to see both sides of the question before declaring any sort of absolute statement.
Firstly then, I would like to point out that I was thoroughly impressed by the musical quality of the film. Each piece of the score is well thought out, authentic and well executed. There is minimal cheese, and the lyrics help to develop the characters rather than simply provide filler and glory to the viewer’s ears.
The cinematography to accompany these pieces is also excellent. “The Greatest Show” as the opening song certainly draws in viewers in a way that draws them into watching the entire film. Pieces such as “Rewrite the Stars” and “The Other Side” had me in awe at the excellent choreography that accompanied the songs themselves.
I also enjoyed the cleanliness of the movie, which employs no innuendos or questionable footage that would prevent it from being family friendly.
Further, the message itself which the film presents is one that Americans today can certainly learn from: family and the love of others will always outweigh fame, which can never completely satisfy the human desire for more. More is not always better, because there more will “never be enough.”
Additionally, through the song “This is Me,” viewers experience the mutual desire to be accepted and loved simply for who they are inside rather than what they look like or what they do.
This last message is an extremely Christian theme, hailing straight from the Bible passage: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”(1 Samuel 16:7) Yet in many ways, it can be misinterpreted to apply in other ways besides that which is most crucial. When we take such a message to mean, “I am perfect the way I am, so I ought to be accepted and loved that way without making any effort to improve,” a problem arises.
The world has taken this Christian message of defining oneself by interior disposition rather than actions to mean not only that there is no need for personal daily growth, but that those who advocate for change within the heart and soul claim something to be “wrong” with them before this takes place.
Not to get too controversial here, but I do wish to briefly note that this is one of the key issues with the sexual revolution currently taking place. People misinterpret that just because Christians challenge each other and those around them to see further growth and development, to rise above their temptations and flaws, this means they don’t love each other as they are.
In fact, the opposite is true. Because of a mutual love for each other as they are, Christians desire the best for their friends and see each moment as an opportunity to grow toward perfection and holiness.
This leads me to the point I wish to make regarding “The Greatest Showman.”
Yes, there are historically inaccurate details of the movie, from the hair styles to the opera singer failing to sing opera. Yes, the second half of the movie fails in many ways to finish developing relationships between the characters and to present a more than predictable plot.
Yes, P. T. Barnum is made into a hero, who sacrifices his own ambitions for those around him and makes something beautiful out of the members of his show, when they were actually presented as freaks for his own benefit.
This is where we are. It’s not perfect. And we can seek to improve it.
But as the movie itself shows us, we need to appreciate where we are right now, not disparage that, and move on to look for opportunities to change ourselves and our society into what we can be.
Thus, my take on “The Greatest Showman” is to appreciate its good parts: the music, the dancing, the lights and the choreography, while recognizing that there are some serious issues at stake which prevent me from giving it a five-star rating.
We cannot ignore something that contains the good, true and beautiful, but we also cannot whitewash the details and pretend that there are not very real problems with our society and with ourselves. We need to love what we have now, but not let ourselves be stymied into a stand-still wherein we cannot eventually rid ourselves of those defects, which cause damage and injury to others and ourselves.
The world is not perfect. But this is where we are. As Christians, we “think of what the world could be, a vision of the one (we) see,” and we work to make it so.