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'The Greatest Showman': For Ladies, Gentlemen & Parentally Guided Children of All Ages

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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Watching Michael Gracey's "The Greatest Showman," about the life and times of circus visionary P.T. Barnum, it occurred to me that the Trump debacle wasn't just about old white men afraid of losing their foothold. And it also wasn't just about white supremacists afraid of multiculturalism, or about trying to preserve dodo bird industries that would have no future place in our health, wealth and commonweal if we were to progress as a nation. 
 
Nope, I fear it has to do with our basest instincts: a curiosity and approach-avoidance appetite for the macabre.
 
It is our national car accident, turned upside down on the side of the road, unheard screaming people moving in slow motion, lights flashing as emergency personnel gather to the horror, the whole scene beckoning us to "C'mon, look! C'mon, look!" We try to avert our eyes, but must peek into this gruesome portal of our corrupt administration. It is this primeval area of the human psyche that P.T. Barnum tapped into  the guilty thrill of the bizarre that catapulted him to success.
 
But with apologies to the title character, assuring him that it is all for good, patriotic purpose, the analogies don't just end there. Up, up on the high wire, he who now features himself the greatest showman, among an endless list of other, self-proclaimed superlatives, dangles democracy above the gasping public below. It is his own center ring, the purpose of which is no more complex than his self-aggrandizement, and there, in all due respect to P.T. Barnum, is where the comparisons must end. For Barnum was, at the end of the day, a decent man.
 
Hugh Jackman's highly entertaining, song and dance portrayal of Phineas Taylor Barnum, for all his brazen, profit-motivated bluff and bravado, was an altruist who, like all good men stricken with overweening ego, harnessed his narcissism to good purpose. License is given to such strong personalities who compassionately opt to make people happy rather than take the opportunity to subjugate them. Conveniently completing my comparative metaphor, P.T.'s superb cast of natural wonders symbolizes the minorities and masses yearning to be free.
 
While today's biopics have essentially eschewed the over-fictionalization that used to mark the genre's offerings, director Gracey, working from a screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, harks to the old classics not by padding the truth, but by leaving out a bit of it. A quick perusal of Barnum's illustrious biography shows that his career as chief promoter of the modern circus, while his most celebrated achievement, was but one segment of his many pursuits. He held political office, did a bunch of social reforming and launched several business ventures. But the omissions, paved over by time constraints and the structure required of traditional musicals, particularly one that probably has designs of evolving into a Broadway hit, are ultimately forgiven. The tacit rationale, aside from the necessity of producing a quick moving, lively amusement, is that there's intrigue enough here to whet the inquisitiveness of viewers who, after leaving the theater humming the swell tunes, may want to read up a bit on this major dynamo of American entertainment.
 
A veritable three-ring circus of solid supporting players, all set to twirling like pinwheels in a storm, is overwhelmed by the will and energy of Barnum's relentless climb to showbiz greatness. 
 
A tad familiar, but nonetheless an important catalyst and sounding board to P.T.'s Juggernautish quest for success, Michelle Williams is his wife, Charity Barnum, a blue-blood whose disdaining father the showman is hell-bent on impressing. And while actually a composite character, Zac
Efron's Phillip Carlyle, a successful Broadway playwright, is vital to the movie's secondary plot. Portrayed as the poor little rich boy looking for greater meaning, the high-born Carlyle finds not only excitement in the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, but the satisfaction to be gained by the humanitarian byproduct of Barnum's grand march to success. 
 
The diverse congregation of societal castoffs P.T. assembles, including, but not limited to Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady played by Keala Settle; Sam Humphrey as the famous General Tom Thumb; and Mr. O'Malley (Eric Anderson), the giant, provide ample opportunity for lessons in tolerance.
 
But it's more than acceptance that Phillip winds up feeling for the high-flying Anne Wheeler, a beautiful, African-American trapeze artist played by Zendaya. Of course, at each turn they meet the scorn of bigotry. Thus is occasioned in both song and speech a hopeful remonstration of prejudice, that shameful American pastime of late afforded new boldness by the circus now parading as our government. I suspect its ringmaster will be incensed when beseeching, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's The Greatest Showman of them all?" and the answer is P.T. Barnum.
 
"The Greatest Showman," rated PG, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by Michael Gracey and stars Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams and Zac Efron. Running time: 105 minutes
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