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.