The Greatest Showman: The Embodiment of the American Spirit

After walking out of this film, I have to conclude either the critics did not “get” The Greatest Showman, or they did… and didn’t like it. Or maybe it’s the fact that the film hits them where it hurts, with the critic within the film representing the wider critics at large, and the film asserting boldly, through P.T. Barnum, that what the critics think means less than that the public leaves “with a smile on their face.” Barnum says the audience knows it’s an illusion, a lie, they pay to be hoodwinked, and bad reviews sell tickets, because people want to witness a spectacle for themselves.

Modern audiences have no problem condemning P.T. Barnum by modern standards, which has created a second backlash against this film – the idea of “whitewashing” his history in favor of making him a likable hero, but the point of the film is not to dramatize his life, but to enhance it and create a symbol from it of the American Spirit.

It is a quintessentially American film to its core, with Barnum representing the everyman and the everyman’s dream, that you can come from nothing and make your fortune through sheer determination and ingenuity. Barnum fails, and fails again… but he picks himself up by the bootstraps, takes a risk, and achieves success, in part because he finds the “dregs” of society, the unwanted people, and combines them together into his circus; in so doing, he gives them a home.

America has not always lived up to her potential, but the idea behind her, the symbol she becomes in the world, is one of hope, ambition, and the idea anyone can “make something” of themselves here. She is praised and denounced in this film through the racial divide; the idea that many can come to her, to this circus we dwell in, and find acceptance clashes with the harsh reality of racial and political divides, and her people being antagonistic toward social and racial differences. The ideal is that anyone is welcome here, the reality is, they aren’t. But the dream is more valuable, more important, than the reality; the dream is what Barnum believes in and sells, and people come even when they know it’s an illusion. Barnum is, at his core, American: he refuses to participate in stogy conventions or social barriers, he’s brazen enough to walk up to people outside his own class and introduce himself, and when he tries to please people other than those nearest and dearest to his heart, he fails.

This is how the rest of the world sees Americans… and largely, for good reason; most of us are here because at some point, our ancestors had enough and bucked convention, fled the old world for the new, or came here not of their choice, but became part of the circus that is America. Melodramatic, is America; bold, brash, brazen, risk-taking, she takes enormous leaps, she sometimes falls, but she always rises from the ashes, dusts off her shoes, and charges forward again, to greater success, sometimes in enormous leaps and bounds and other times, in slow stages. Like Barnum, she is in a constant stage of change, of learning, of self-betterment, with the belief that her dreams, her ideal, can become reality.

The film explores the problems of the past through its characters; Barnum earns money through exploiting the “freaks” (a nod to our nation’s sad history of abuse, racism, and slavery); Philip represents an upper class drawn to social liberation through abandoning its prejudices; Anne is the love-filled dreamer who soars above adversity and represents a higher ideal of equality within racial divides. Even This is Me is the ultimate American song to its core; “This is me / I make no apologies.” Hate me, love me, take me as I am, this is me.

It’s a loving tribute not only to art but to the highest of American ideals, an embodiment of the core of our problematic but ambitious nation, that isn’t afraid to say what the elites feel doesn’t matter… all that matters is to create a spectacle and please the audience. And if you fall, it’s not the end. Get up, and try again.

9 thoughts on “The Greatest Showman: The Embodiment of the American Spirit

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  1. We enjoyed this movie! It did bother me slightly that though the music was catchy, it didn’t quite fit.. but maybe that’s just my bias against most modern pop music, and love of authentic Broadway, coming into play. I was actually surprised that the film did not receive more backlash for being unrealistic (or maybe I just haven’t come across it yet), and I was surprised that animal activists were not more upset by the story of a circus runner being romanticized. However, while it may not be a “truthful” retelling of Barnum’s life, I did like the positive messages and strong spirit in the movie, and I’m glad that more recent movies are putting a strong focus on diversity.

  2. Great analysis! I love the “Barnum is America” reading of this. Is he (Barnum) or she (America) perfect? Not a bit. Both are deeply flawed at times, idealistic and hopeful at best, bought and sold and built on a past debt we can’t really repay. But still, the show must go on, and it seems like the best path forward is to embrace our uniqueness, our ideals, and honor all the wonderful freaks from all walks of life that have made us what we are at our best.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. We saw “The Greatest Showman” on Christmas. Twice.

    My husband and I liked it so much that we purchased tickets for myself, he and our youngest son to return again that night…before we even left the theater.

    It is my very favorite movie. I love it. Love it, love it.

    (When I received an email which let me know of this update – my heart kind of stopped. When I saw the first line I thought “Oh, no! She walked out of “The Greatest Showman”?!)

    I was much relieved to read that you loved it, too.

    (We are seeing it again, tomorrow. As said: it is now my very favorite movie.)

    Happy New Year!

  4. Well said. I couldn’t agree more. So much of the world (and even parts of America) just don’t “get it.” The American spirit is to appreciate and respect diversity while being “in this together.” It sounds as if The Greatest Showman exemplifies that very well. Can’t wait to see it.

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