Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 gets a slick, stylish update for the Trump era courtesy of 99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani. On the surface, taking Bradbury’s book about the suppression of knowledge and setting it firmly in a world that seems to be crafted in the image of Donald Trump makes sense, and there’s a potentially brilliant movie to be made from this concept.
This isn’t that movie, though. Instead, Bahrani weighs Fahrenheit 451 down with a near-painful lack of subtlety, to the point where the film feels like it’s screaming in your face with a megaphone, “GET IT?” Bradbury’s source material wasn’t exactly subtle to begin with, but writer-director Bhrani takes things to the extreme.
Which is a shame, because there’s a lot to admire in this film. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau bathes Fahrenheit 451 in sickly, sweaty light – bruise-purples, jaundiced-yellows, and of course, a whole lot of neon – a prerequisite for stylish films nowadays, thanks to John Wick. And then there are the two lead performances.
Michael B. Jordan, fresh off his scene-stealing turn in Black Panther, is Guy Montag. Montag is a fireman, but in the future, firemen don’t put out fires – they start them. They’re the equivalent of stormtroopers, or running rampant through the city, kicking in doors, and rounding up undesirables. Those undesirables are nicknamed “eels”, and their great crime is reading. Books are banned in this future landscape, and anyone caught reading them is a criminal. Once caught, the books are burned, and so are the fingerprints of the eels caught with the reading material. This fingerprint removal essentially makes the suspect non-existent – in a digital world where everything is activated by touch, a person void of fingerprints may as well not exist.
Jordan is his typically great self, bringing a mix of bluster and regret to his performance. At the start of the film, Guy is full devoted to his job and the totalitarian government he works for. But over the period of the story, his eyes begin to open and he begins to crave the knowledge that lurks in all those books he’s spent most of his life burning. Jordan spends a good chunk of the movie gazing at things – books, people, flames – and his stare is so piercing that it’s almost painful. Jordan’s shoulders heave as he takes long, troubled breaths; the sweat beads on his forehead. It’s one hell of an intense performance.
As intense as Jordan may be, he’s got nothing on his co-star Michael Shannon. Shannon plays Montag’s fire captain and surrogate father, Beatty. Shannon, an actor who always looks as if he’s seconds away from murdering someone, goes for broke with Beatty, playing the man as unhinged and boiling. You get the sense that there’s a fire burning somewhere in his pronounced brow that’s hotter than any flame that he uses to torch a book. Shannon’s Beatty puts on the appearance of a man who operates extremely buy-the-book, but he, too, is drawn to forbidden books. When no one is around, he bides his time scrawling out poetic quotations on cigarette paper, then sets them on fire.
Jordan and Shannon play off each other extremely well, although at times it seems like they’re trying to one-up each other in terms of intensity. Yet there’s also a distance between the two – and that doesn’t quite work. It makes sense as the story progresses and Montag turns against everything he’s known, but the coldness is there before that even happens, too – and it shouldn’t be, because we’re supposed to believe that Montag and Beatty are close. Beatty essentially raised Montag after Montag’s father was hauled away for breaking the law. Yet ten seconds into the movie it seems as if the two men kind of loathe each other before they have any reason to do so.
Bahrani populates the futuristic landscape of Fahrenheit 451 wil all sorts of nods to the present. There’s an Alexa-like personal assistant/watchful eye installed in everyone’s house. And when the firemen go on their runs, their actions are broadcast live online, complete with emojis floating across the screen to mimic Facebook Live videos. All of this is fine, in theory, but it starts to wear the film down. Scene after scene gives off a winking, nudging feeling – the filmmaker making sure we don’t miss all the not-so-subtle references to our own current existence. There’s no subtext here, just text. And to make sure less-astute viewers don’t miss the Trump-connections, Bahrani’s script throws in a scene where Jordan’s character has to shout, “MAKE AMERICA BURN AGAIN!” It reaches a point where we want to throw up our hands and say, “Ugh, we get it.”
There’s potential for a smart allegory buried in here somewhere. Jordan is, after all, a black man, and his character is a black man who has spent the majority of his life submitting to the system, only to suddenly have his eyes open. But save for a quick scene in which Beatty discusses books by black authors, including Richard Wright’s Native Son, there’s not much to go on. You could argue that Bahrani is trying to play this angle subtly, but nothing else in the movie is subtle, so why would this be?
Montag’s turn from the darkness to the light happens suddenly. There’s never a sense of why this is happening – it just does. While the abruptness may seem forced, Jordan’s handling of his character’s transformation is not. Montag’s guide into the world of the printed word is Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), a woman who sometimes serves as an informant for Beatty. A romance of sorts blossoms between Montag and Clarisse, but it’s handled in a tender, almost touching way. They don’t seem as if they’re falling in love because the script requires them to. Rather, they’re just two doomed people drawn together by secrecy. They spend long hours in close quarters, reading words to each other. It’s only a matter of time before a touch lingers; a gaze lasts too long; lips quiver and move in for a kiss.
It’s in these quiet moments – not the big, showy, somewhat preachy scenes – that Fahrenheit 451 hits its stride. If the film would just stop and take a breath more often, we’d be blessed with a genuinely impressive adaptation. As it is, though, the film sort of bounces along at a lunatic pace, unsure if it wants to be a pulse-quickening character study or a big, clumsy allegory.
Still, there are some nice touches to savor. Firemen operate under the assumption that Ben Franklin started the fire department specifically to burn books, and anyone who says otherwise is spreading the Fahrenheit 451 equivalent of “fake news.” A scene in which Montag and Beatty confront an elderly woman who refuses to leave as they set fire to her books – and house – is rendered in a haunting fashion; Bahrani goes in close on Jordan’s face, letting the flames reflect in his sorrowful eyes. And a particularly amusing moment comes early-on, when Beatty – addressing a room full of students – says that there are still three books that everyone is allowed to read: the Bible, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. All three of these books, however, have been rewritten in emoji form.
For all Fahrenheit 451 gets wrong, its heart is ultimately in the right place, and that should count for something. And for all the heavy-handed notes Bahrani hits, he’s still able to play a sweet melody now and then. The final few moments of the film, for instance, are lovely and heartbreaking. There’s no easy fix; no simple way out. Instead, the film ends in flames, before transcending to a higher place – literally. Bahrani focuses on a bird (I won’t tell you the significance of the bird so as to avoid spoilers, but it has a specific purpose). That bird flaps its wings through the sky, moving from one landscape to the next, alone for seemingly every flap of its journey. And then it finds other birds – a whole flock, twirling and dancing through the open air. And it joins with them. And the soundtrack swells. And there’s some sort of hope there. Some sort of unspoken message – even in the darkest of times, you’re not alone. You just need to find your flock.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
Fahrenheit 451 debuts May 19, 2018 on HBO.