Film, News & Commentary, Screen

The Greatest Showman is the greatest kind of con: a repugnant film full of lies

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Was P.T. Barnum, the pioneering circus owner, impresario and father of the freak show, really the swell bloke – so wise, benevolent and virtuous – portrayed by Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman? A basic understanding of history would suggest the famously exploitative, gawk-for-a-penny entrepreneur was the opposite: a shameless shyster who pocketed a tidy profit by monetising human and animal suffering.

The rewriting of history from debut director Michael Gracey, in his frothy musical biopic, is sensational stuff: a standard of dupery-dealing to be envied in Pyongyang. There is an argument to say Barnum’s life story suits the entertainment over truth (at any cost) approach, given the subject’s affection for peddling the former at the expense of the latter.

But The Greatest Showman does more than invite us to leave our brains at the door. Gracey presents a laughably dishonest, history-recalibrating melodrama much more pernicious than the sentiment behind that old line about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. What was it like to be considered a freak, paraded in front of customers who pointed, jeered, laughed and cringed? According to this all-singing, all-dancing feel-good lark, it was fabulous!

The message is clear: these empowered – and not at all exploited – people should be damn grateful for Barnum’s charity.

Screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon frame Barnum’s narrative as the tale of an unfairly maligned person – the son of a poor tailor – dedicating his life to helping fellow outsiders. These include a bearded lady (Keala Settle), the diminutive Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) and an assortment of others including a tattooed man, a giant, a person with albinism and conjoined twins. The message is clear: these empowered – and not at all exploited – people should be damn grateful for this beautiful man’s charity.

And indeed, the eclectic supporting characters belt out a range of uplifting tunes, ‘making no apology’ for their lives and appearances and coming to Barnum’s aid when the man’s spirits need lifting. Barnum’s resolve to help down-and-outers is established early in the film, when, while loitering in a laneway as a child, he is presented with an apple by a hag in a hoodie. This is a moment of kindness that inspired him to risk everything and create a museum populated by “unusual” people.

Outside his theatre, we see vision of crowds holding placards reading ‘Boycott Barnum’. In these brief moments Gracey, though he does not give their views even cursory consideration, acknowledges there is a lingering foulness in his protagonist’s legacy: an elephant in the room, and not the one the protagonist rides on through the streets of Manhattan (!) after informing business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) that he will be scaling back his showbiz commitments to spend more time with his family.

The reason the protagonist’s behaviour is not questioned in any way – quite the opposite – is because it runs counter to the film’s core message: that Barnum was a saviour who, as an initially snooty and later fawning theatre critic portrayed by Paul Sparks puts it, created “a celebration of humanity” in his museum. Did Jackman wince when he read that line in the screenplay? Did any alarm bells go off?

Perhaps the actor hoped Gracey’s song and dance numbers – full of cheesy images and contemporary lyrics, despite the story taking place in the nineteenth century – would tape over any plot or thematic weaknesses. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Jackman, like his character, is something of a huckster himself, well beyond the ‘savvy businessman’, with a classy, clean-cut image that beautifully camouflages a tenacious spirit – and in this instance a dubious, if not downright repugnant product.

The Greatest Showman (is) a doublethink cash grab, painting perpetrator as saviour and exploited victims on the fringes of society as empowering role models.

When Jackman, while introducing The Greatest Showman at its Australian premiere, brought up the recent Fox/Disney merger to a Moët-infused audience, assuring the crowd it would not result in a reduction of quality content, who was he really speaking to, or for? When Jackman reflected on how greatly the script for a Lipton Iced Tea commercial connected with him on a personal level, because that delicious drink “can really keep you cool under pressure”, was he actually talking from the heart? Scarier than the duplicity of a “no” is the possibility of an earnest “yes.”

The current push for greater diversity in Hollywood and the wider entertainment industries constitutes a realignment of the scales, the ultimate aim for our entertainment industries to better reflect the scope and range of human experience. The Greatest Showman turns this meaningful journey into a doublethink cash grab, painting perpetrator as saviour and exploited victims on the fringes of society as empowering role models – figures of inspiration to make mainstream, uncritical audiences feel better about themselves.

Folk like the real Tom Thumb were undoubtedly inspirational people, though god knows what they thought about the state of humanity or the souls of fellow humans. Their lives and legacies have been hijacked for manipulative schmaltz that solicits the same pity-based response Barnum evoked from his customers back in the day: the feeling ‘thank god I’m not one of them’. The impresario’s freak show was honest, or at least obvious, in its gratuitous intent. Gracey’s sensationally disingenuous film is a more elaborate ruse.

45 responses to “The Greatest Showman is the greatest kind of con: a repugnant film full of lies

  1. As a role model for the hipster gig economy, perhaps the remake of P.T. Barnum is appropriate. While ‘perception is the reality’ P.T. Barnum other observation, ‘ a sucker born every minute’ appears to be the current business sentiment. Indeed your observations about exploitation of those on the fringes is a fundamental part of small business practice in 2017. While I appreciate your comments, joining many dots together to express the only moral and ethical position on P.T. Barnum. In 2017 its all about the glitz. Advertising conceals more than it reveals, a full story is unpalatable, so a selected highlights creates a feel good aura, which as we know improves consumer confidence..which is at the heart of shyster business practices. Always worth reading your reviews for a glimpse behind the curtain..the wizards are in full fury with this one! Smoke, mirrors, the whole one would expect from a corporate entertainment industry. The show (must) goes on.. as before.

  2. I do suspect Luke you may have over thought the particular premise around this film. You need to remember the context & times around how & where this film fits into our social fabric. It’s very much of a time, where people were struggling to survive. I live with a disability which not only affects my mobility, but also people treat me very differently though they ‘re often not as aware as they need to be. So there is still continued discrimination around people who are seen as different, ie short of stature or whatever rung of the ladder they find themselves on, it would have been ten times harder back in those days. These people probably had little to no choice about taking up with Barnums Circus, probably little education (as it would have been seen as a waste) they would have most likely been rejected by their families or seen as a burden. Though things have changed Ben, (in most first world countries) in Indonesia & Thailand they aren’t kind to those with disability, this a common refrain that I have heard through my online community of friends (with disabilities). So maybe this conversation shouldn’t necessarily be about Jackman, may be more about the fact that things need to change, for those of us who are treated like invisible people, because we have the temerity to develop (have a disability) which won’t fade into the background, because those who are able bodied are either slightly embarrassed or their stripe of PC hasn’t quite matched what they know as a society they should be doing to further this cause.

  3. And what was the movie like Luke?? Are you a social commentator and cultural commissar or a movie reviewer? It’s a musical, a genre that’s allowed more than the usual liberties. I think you’ve gone OTT on this one.

  4. Channelling the Christmas Grinch, Buckmaster? Didn’t get the present you felt you deserved?

    What an unnecessarily nasty review. Since when do films have to reflect the “truth”, when did it stop being OK to take a subject and make a bit of froth? You really think people burst in to song and dance in the Hollywood Hills?

    And who said “better reflect the scope and range of human experience” was actually a rule that all films had to abide by? I suspect you just made that up as I’ve not heard or noticed any such thing.

    And quite a bit playing the man. Didn’t Hugh pay you the right amount of deference at some time?

  5. It was a movie you simpleton! A movie that you could sit back and be entertained by. The soundtrack is great and extremely memorable, unlike that bore of a soundtrack that was La La Land. My whole family loved this movie and it was inspired by the life of Barnum and not an autobiography. If I want reality I will look out my window but if I want to be entertained and escape from reality for a bit then I will watch movies like this one. How many movies have you made, written and or produced? I think your opinion is pretty much null and void as you seem bitter by movies that leave people smiling and feeling good, as opposed to people like you who are just bitter due to a lack of any real talent. Just like the critic in the movie you fail to see what real people want to see.

    Thanks for your review but it lacked any real talent and I’m glad I ignored it before I went to see the movie for myself.

    Daniel Adams.

    1. I absolutely agree. I want pure escapism and magic. This experience left me crying happy tear and sad. I loved the music the dancing and the pure spectacle. I go to the movies to escape. This ticked every box for me. I think the journo here is trying to replicate the miserable critic in the film. If so you almost nailed it. I feel you missed the point of the film. Its not a biopic nor to it profess to be one. Take the film as you see it and enjoy.

  6. It’s difficult enough to endure the trailer. How is it possible to enjoy such a sugary sweet confection of history? But I wouldn’t expect anything else from Huge Actorman. Don’t waste your time, check out Tod Browning’s 1932 ‘Freaks’ instead.

  7. You cannot be serious! You are too nervous to print my comment on Luke Buckmaster’s review. I disagreed with him very mildly, politely, and with reasons. So much for fearless independent journalism at Daily Review. That level of timidity would even put the Murdoch press to shame.

  8. Wow! What a putdown before we even see the film or entertainment and judge for ourselves. I know it is your job, your rules, but it is fairly obvious that there is more to your critique than just social justice issues. However, thank you for your comments. It does show a level of humanity for today’s issues given that this relates to how far society has come as you point out, from the time of this “Great Showman”.
    Good on Hugh Jackman for daring to brave the critics like you. Noone knows more about helping and supporting the less fortunate than Hugh, through his charity and benificence. This is a ” Must See” if only to support the industry and because we are free and able to choose to see what we want here in Australia. Happy New Year 2018

  9. Be that as it may, I cannot help wondering if modern political correctness is out of date for the time. Ask your self if you rather be laughed at and fed or lonely and starving in a backstreet somewhere.

  10. Luke, I’m pretty sure it was meant to be a movie, not a documentary. Freaks was a documentary if I recall correctly, this was never billed as such.

    And your review is so of this time, not taking into account the times that Barnum operated in. It is actually entirely possible that he was the only person that would employ these ‘freaks’, and in that sense doing some good. At the same time this was going on, men were working in asbestos mines, or on the hungry mile, doing back breaking work until their backs actually broke, and some time after that troops were taken to a place called Maralinga so they could test the effects of atomic bomb emissions on real people, and, oh fuck, I doubt I could ever stop with the level of things that went on that we would reasonably consider atrocities now.

    A review of the movie would be appreciated, and a bit of flexibility of mind . This is just modern day proselytising.

    1. The entire negativity in this review is based on how everything in the movie does not reflect the man who the reviewer considers P. T. Barnum to be. There is no cinematic review here.

  11. A clearly informed critique on the true history of the circus in this review. As always Hollywood, or the homogenised saccharin sweet producers of cinema will always draw out a feel good flick for Christmas. Even at the expense of the truth. I have never recovered from the horror that was Forest Gump. I wouldn’t expect anything else from the producers of this film. It is purely a money making venture. No truth telling of the real history of circus. Thanks for the educated critique.

  12. Six of our family went to see this today.
    Age range 12 to 75. All loved it.
    Great soundtrack, made to entertain not educate.
    If you are looking for a couple of hours of memorable entertainment, and enjoy musicals….go….you won’t be disappointed!

  13. How sad you can’t just go see a movie and just enjoy it, colour and movement, great song and dance , The Last Showman really is a wonderful flick , visually stunning and entertaining to the last frame , that’s all , that’s all it’s supposed to do ! —-now if you want to talk Crap how about that LALA land —–

  14. Luke your review is a harsh view on what was a captivating, fun, entertaining family friendly PG Film.
    We LOVED it and I would and have happily recommended it to others.

  15. I fully agree with Luke Buckmaster’s review. Even aside with the phoniness of Barnum in the film the plot was extremely simplistic and schmaltzy, the songs were weak with corny “all about me” lyrics. The dancing was routine with very obvious computer graphics. I couldn’t wait for it to end.

  16. It’s inspirational! Well, hopefully it will inspire some of the trolls on these message boards to throw down their keyboards and ran away to join the circus X-/

  17. Um… yeah Luke. “Freaks” were exploited but I suspect they could have just walked out and left the circus if they wanted. Maybe Barnum would have been more interesting if he set up a soup kitchen & sheltered workshop for the unfortunates in life? It’s all very well being a SJW in modern times but put yourself back in time and see how far you get.

    Anyhow – was the movie any good apart from the confected outrage?

  18. People thesedays are not interested in history. This critic is outraged at the mauling of history that films, like this one, mete out. P T Barnum was a canny, ruthless, domineering employer who shamelessly exploited anyone he could foist on the public for entertainment. His greatest star was an opera singer Jenny Lind whom he imported from Sweden, at huge expense. She was smart and was paid in advance for a year of concerts before she sailed for America. Barnum presented her in auditoriums so large she was all but drowned out by the orchestra. By the time she finished her first lot of NY performances ( she retuned twice), he had recouped his outlay.
    The musical “Barnum” tells it all quite truthfully (it was not a big success) but films like this one don’t set out to educate. And the screaming, earsplitting noise that is called music in most films today is embarrassing caterwauling and kitchenware rattling.

  19. The show will go on – because it is entertaining (not nasty bitter and reflecting a miserable life) You obviously don’t go to Live Theatre – Live Entertainment.
    Hugh Jackman not only performed magificently, he and his wife invested lots of time and money to bring it to the thousands who have seen it and thoroughly enjoyed it.
    Hundreds of people clapped and cheered at the end when we saw it yesterday!

  20. From two discerning movie goers we enjoyed the entertainment value of this film. The music and dancing were great. Many in the audience applauded at the end, a sure sign they have engaged with and enjoyed the movie.

    By Luke Buckmaster | ★★★
    | February 9, 2017

    Suddenly this guy is a stickler for historical accuracy.

    After SJW beta-males are done trying to rewrite history with their preferred narrative, the rest of us can take a look at this movie based on its entertainment value.

    Hollywood struggles to lie straight in bed. Asking them to teach you about history borders congenital idiocy.

    As for the movie. I took the family to see it (or more precisely, they took me). I had no expectations and didn’t even know it was a musical until Hugh Jackman started singing in the opening sequence (oh great, I thought – sarc). I would most likely have passed had I known. I’m glad I didn’t.

    The soundtrack is excellent, the singing very solid and the story well-paced and entertaining.

    There will no doubt be several iterations of live stage productions to follow.

    The critics will continue to pan while the people slowly discover this gem.

    At some point, it will become a classic and the critics will return to airbrush in their wonderful reviews of such an entertaining movie.

  22. People ! Just saw this movie and it is amazing !! LOVE IT! If you wish to get that feel-good fuzzy amazing feeling for those couple of hours and escape this world where people want to trample on your dreams and hopes…this is for you! Isn’t that what movies are for….escapism art of the highest caliber…THIS delivers beyond all expectations..Ignore the critics..including our esteemed Luke. (Luke you remind me of the reviewer that slates the circus in this film). To my fellow cinema-goers—watch and promise that you will smile and feel that much closer to all humanity.

  23. I love all those “It’s just a movie, get over it” comments.

    Well, if the movie wasn’t advertised as inspired by a true story, it would have been fun. If you do plan to cherrypick the facts in somebody’s life, changing his morals, his goals and rehabilitate him, you might as well change his name and make it a truly “original” musical.

    Here they kept the names, the references, but suddenly made Barnum a Mother Theresa. To all those not understanding how your fun family movie, inducing enjoyable moments, can be wrong in its intent, imagine the most despicable person you know about. Now imagine a movie that twists every little element to the glory of said person, and suddenly you might see how it’s not acceptable.
    Just because it might not be fun, shouldn’t mean you should erase it.

    1. Actually, Mother Teresa was as deeply flawed as PT Barnum. Yes, she did good works among the most deprived of human jetsam, but she was also a religious fanatic with a medicine cabinet full of painkillers that she denied to terminally ill patients in their death agonies because their pain was “a gift to god”.

  24. Listen: Was P.T Barnum a horrible human being who exploited the most vulnerable members of society in order to make a fortune from their suffering? Yes.

    Was ‘The Greatest Showman’ an excellent movie with brilliant acting and soundtrack? Also yes.

    You can enjoy the movie and still acknowledge the awful history behind it. As long as people don’t start conflating the story line of the movie and actual, real history, there is no reason to write scathing reviews about the quality of the movie when it was actually quite a good piece of cinema.

    1. Debatable about the caliber of the ‘piece of cinema’, but: ‘As long as people don’t start conflating the story line of the movie and actual, real history…’

      How likely is it do you think, that they won’t???

    2. I cant enjoy an “excellent” in your opinion movie and still acknowledge the awful history behind it. Obviously YOU CAN and Why bother? Why discount all of the exploitation and suffering and swap it for a Hollywood glitter fest of singing and dancing to make the public (not all are aware of the real Barnum)think that he was a champion for outcasts? Just because it sounds good? and it has a great dance scene? Or because at least he gave them jobs!!? <<<best one yet.

      Cant wait for the Musical version of Schindlers List. ……surely it will lovely seeing all the perpetrators dancing and singing and coming across as doing the us all a favour!

  25. While you are not wrong about the nature of PT Barnum and his circus, you forget on small piece. Many of these ‘freaks’ were unable to work or live in regular society because of any small difference. Like Daisy and Violet Hilton or Chang and Eng even now they would find it difficult to find work and not be treated as an oddity. I’m fairly sure that while Barnum was not the father figure he is shown to be, can you say artistic license?, many of the side shows and acts found a strong family and an income they might otherwise not have had. Two sides to every story I believe. I’m peeved that I cannot remember the name of the documentary about so called ‘lobster’ people who can’t make a living since the side show was outlawed. Plus if your are looking to Hollywood for historical accuracy you are a fool.

  26. All of this comments show the stupidity and the absence of morality (ironically since most of them will applaude it for his “diversity is good” message) of the common american audience, an audience that would rather swallow a sweet life than facing the hard truth. PT Barnum was a fraud, a charlatane and more importantly he was a merciless slave owner who made money out of the pain, imprisoment and torturing of innocent beings. The fact alone that he is responsable for centuries of animal cruelty who still go on today is enough to despite him but we’re also talking about a man who exposed black people as freaks puttin them in cages and saying “what is this? The missing ring between man and monkey”. That’s right people, Barnum was not this SJW Willy Wonka.

    1. People KNOW he was a jerk and a fraud. They’re not denying reality and they’re not trying to romanticize him. I myself am 100% aware that Mr. Barnum was not a good man. However, he was very successful one and he did spark a lot of magic in peoples’ lives. The movie doesn’t show the real Barnum whatsoever and I fully acknowledge that but it doesn’t stop me from loving the artwork behind it, the hard work but the actors did, the music, and the message the directors wanted to send. And while most references are twisted or fabricated, quite a few of them are also true.

      As I said in another comment to the author, I really hope you guys decide to pick apart The Sound of Music next. Both are musicals widely composed of the directors’ imaginations and the majority of what you’re seeing in them is not true. Neither of them claimed to be a documentary, merely a musical for fun, but they brought so much happiness to the lives of their audiences. Plenty of us know the truth and guess what? We enjoy it anyways because we aren’t pessimists. Pull the stick out of your ass, please.

  27. A thoroughly enjoyable film. Your review is so PC and humourless , as people in 2018 have become. Why can a musical with great songs and dancing not be enjoyed for what it was? It never said it was a documentary. Whoever expects Hollywood movies to stick to the facts, and not take poetic licence is very naive. Lighten up Luke, go back to the sixties and seventies even eighties and have a bit of a laugh.

  28. Your pretentious review was a waste of time to read Buckmkaster. What happened to just taking the movie for what it is…..A MOVIE! Maybe you don’t agree with the portrayal of P.T. Barnum, but the movie still left audiences with joy and song in their hearts. It was a pure spectacle of dancing, music and smiles. I couldn’t help but bob my head along to the music and it was hard to hold back tears of emotion at times. To me, based on this review, you must be having a really, really bad day. #saltymuch

  29. What a pompous, wordy, snivelling, whining, sneering, morally righteous piece of writing that was! Does the ‘teviewer’ even understand what musical theatre is about? It’s about acting, and people breaking out into song at the most inappropriate moments, about dancing and joy and love, laughter and tears.

    Does the musical ‘Les Miserables’ really reflect the French Revolution? Did those young students really sing and dance their way through the blood and guts of the Revolution?

    The Greatest Showman is a fabulous piece of entertainment, wonderful cheesy songs, stomping good dancing and a message in the storyline that inspires all of us to be who we are.

    Maybe the critic needs to lighten up. This musical delivers in spades and shovels. A history lesson it isn’t; nor do the rational amongst us expect it to be!

    Buckmaster snootily labels Jackman as ‘Hugh Actorman’. But you know what? He can wear that surname like a badge of honour. He IS an actor, and a damn good one. He can sing, dance, play multiple instruments and apart from using his talent to bring us great entertainment, he also is a generous philanthropist and a gentleman.

    Maybe you, Mr Buckmaster are having an attack of the sour grapes. You know what they say, don’t you? A movie critic is just a failed actor. Aw. Is this you? 🙂

  30. While I was unaware the film took such liberties with the truth (let’s face it, what blockbuster biopic hasn’t) I found I could not stomach the shameless Baz Luhrmann-style OTTness of it all, including the soundtrack. It all smacked of being more of an attempt to make a hit movie, rather than a good movie. Then again, many here in this comment thread love it, which goes to show most people are fairly uncritical, as long as a movie ticks the emotional boxes and reinforces their view of the world (or how it should be).

    1. Yes, agree wholeheartedly that the ABC would do well to calm down on the fluff pieces; a great interview that shows an unseen side to a celebrity always welcome, but fawning not so much.

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