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Non-Review Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 certainly makes a strong case for being “the movie of the moment.”

Adapted loosely from Ray Bradbury’s iconic and beloved science-fiction novel, a piece of source material that famously bewildered François Truffaut during his first and only interaction with Hollywood movie-making, writer and director Ramin Bahrani perfectly positions Fahrenheit 451 as a piece of pop culture for the Trump era. Bahrani smartly retains almost as much of the aesthetic of the source material as he updates, making a strong case that Fahrenheit 451 is more than just an opportunistic broadside at the current political moment.

“I’m going to burn it all.”

Nevertheless, Bahrani makes a number of changes to the story, and turns up the volume on particular story elements, to align his televisual adaptation for the current cultural moment. Ray Bradbury famously claimed that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 as a criticism of television, creating an engaging irony within this adaptation. Bahrani shifts the emphasis slightly to position his adaptation as a criticism of the internet, in particular modern internet subcultures and the way it decreases the audience’s attention span. There are live streams, in-home assistants that are always listening, emojis, and online “fans.”

This is certainly a valid approach to the material, and it’s to the credit of Bahrani as a writer and a director that he manages to build a world that is obviously of a piece with that created in the source material written sixty-five years ago and which works as a pointed commentary on modern cultural discourse. With its brutalist architecture, its cold digital cinematography, its compelling central performances, its suggested alternative history, and its ominous ambient lighting providing the occasional splash of vivid colour, Fahrenheit 451 creates a fictional world that is compelling and engaging.

Lighting a spark…

Unfortunately, the film’s narrative is nowhere near as engaging as its setting. Bahrani cannily borrows characters, premises and sequences from the source novel, but he largely reworks the story. Fahrenheit 451 is restructured as a more conventional science-fiction narrative than the original book, complete with apocalyptic stakes and a macguffin to drive the plot. The plot of Fahrenheit 451 is generic science-fiction fluff, a pale imitation of the familiar rhythms of movies like The Matrix or Equilibrium or Aeon Flux. It is almost as though Bahrani has internalised Bradbury’s critique of television as dumb and simple and broad.

As a result, Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. It is a beautiful piece of work from an aesthetic perspective, but one employed in a very crude and unsatisfying manner.

Television film.

The production design on Fahrenheit 451 is impressive, particularly for what amounts to a television movie produced on a HBO budget. The television channel has produced top-shelf television before, and has even produced some of the best television movies of the twenty-first century – Recount and Game Changer are among the best movies about politics that America has produced in the past twenty-five years. However, there is something breathtaking in the scale of Fahrenheit 451, in the way that it builds an entire world on screen, and is content to stay there for one hundred minutes before burning it all down.

The greatest accomplishments in Fahrenheit 451 are primarily technical in nature. Fahrenheit 451 exists in the uncanny valley between the modern world and the neon futures evoked by movies like Blade Runner 2049 or Mute. A lot of the credit belongs to production designer Mark Digby, costume designer Meghan Kasperlik and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau. Fahrenheit 451 looks great, particularly the use of cold and sterile surroundings that only seem to come alive when lit by fire.

Neon demons.

Similarly, Fahrenheit 451 gets away with a lot by virtue of its casting. Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon are two phenomenal performers, and both expertly cast within the film. Jordan plays Montag, the young “fireman” who allows doubts about the broader culture of oppression and suppression to creep into his mind. Shannon plays the veteran Beatty, a man who has wrestled with his demons and whose passionate commitment to the cause is only strengthened by the fact that he has wrestled with those some sinful impulses.

Neither actor is particularly stretched by the demands of the role. Jordan’s natural charisma signals Montag’s character arc from his opening scene, with the audience never doubting his trajectory through the narrative, despite his own uncertainty. Beatty is in many ways the archetypal Michael Shannon role, a character whose outward commitment is a conscious reaction to the turmoil raging within, very much of a piece with his performances as Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire or Richard Strickland in Shape of Water. This is not a problem; there is something reassuring in watching good performers do good work.

Crossing the Shannon.

In fact, the finer details of the future presented in Fahrenheit 451 are interesting, from little touches like the suggestion that classics like the Bible and Moby Dick have been translated into emoji through to broader ideas like the complete erosion of personal privacy in an era that incentivises broadcast and sharing. Fahrenheit 451 is as vicious about the internet as the original novel was angry about television, arguing that the culture of instant gratification – of tweets, streams, single-character dialogue – has effectively reduced discourse and debate to the broadest possible range of emotions.

Of course, Fahrenheit 451 occasionally feels confused in its messaging. This is entirely appropriate, given the complicated legacy of its source material. In his later years, Bradbury would viciously reject the idea that his novel was about the dangers of censorship, instead arguing that it was a moral panic about a younger generation growing up with new media. Bradbury’s reading of his own novel conflicts with the popular understanding of it, creating a fascinating tension. Is Fahrenheit 451 an ode to free speech, or a cautionary tale about information overload resulting from it?

Heated discussions.

Appropriately, this ambivalence carries over to Bahrani’s adaptation. The film is avowedly anti-Trump, with its emphasis on the tensions between “eels” (for “illegal”) and “natives”, playing into the paranoid xenophobia that fueled Trump’s ascent. At the same time, it seems just as legitimately concerned about the idea of self-censorship and tone policing, about the idea that some ideas are inherently toxic and dangerous. There is something very strange in this argument, suggesting that racism and fascism are the result of a lack of ideas, rather than existing as ideas of themselves.

Walking through a library, Beatty explains that the roots of this totalitarian regime were in the African Americans offended by Mark Twain’s use of the “n-word” in Huckleberry Finn. He cites “the feminists” who objected to certain novels as the cornerstone of the dystopia in which he lived. Fahrenheit 451 is a film that believes that any attempt to impose anything that might be construed as a limitation on art – whether in polite self-censorship in books aimed at children, criticism of a work through a particular lens – is an act of thought policing and equivalent to the literal burning of books.

Getting a burner.

There is something very disconcerting and awkward in this, as if Fahrenheit 451 is attempting to critique both Trump and political correctness at the same time, taking a broad swipe at both ideas as morally equivalent in nature. It hints at the conflicted nature of the source material, which was at once boldly progressive and staunchly reactionary. This perhaps explains why the central allegory has endured for so long; it can be read any number of ways. Fahrenheit 451 is at once concerned with the way internet rhetoric and celebrity culture has dumbed down modern society, while also being panicked about free speech on campus.

Indeed, while there is some validity to Fahrenheit 451‘s critique of vapid internet culture, the shift from television towards cyberspace reinforces the moral panic at play in Bradbury’s original novel. Even before the internet in Fahrenheit 451 reduced cultural communication to a selection of emojis and memes, it is suggested that it had horribly fragmented society with catastrophic results. Beatty contends that the internet age gave voice “so many millions of opinions” that it led to a vaguely defined “Second Civil War.”

Meeting his match.

However, Fahrenheit 451 glosses over the capacity of the internet as a tool for communication and collaboration, for sharing vital information that might otherwise be overlooked. In some ways, this anxiety about the internet feels like the same anxieties that accompanied the arrival of cinema and of television, a preoccupation with the worst facets of the technological revolution without consideration of the change as a whole. This isn’t a fatal flaw with Fahrenheit 451 by any measure. Indeed, there’s something engaging in how thoroughly Fahrenheit 451 commits to its worldview.

The real problems with Fahrenheit 451 derive from the plot, which kicks into gear around the half-hour mark of the film. This is largely an original invention of Bahrani, and perhaps a nod to the narrative demands of propulsive television. Beatty and Montag are effectively a form of dystopian law enforcement, so Fahrenheit 451 feels the need to give the movie a cleaner structure than the book, built around one case with potentially massive repercussions for society as a whole. A lot of the smaller details of the novel are brushed aside for a high-stakes chase, with Beatty and Montag trying to crack one big investigation.

Bonfire of the vanities.

The details of that case are inevitably stock, and could easily have been lifted from any dystopian feature film ever made. After one botched raid, the authorities get wind of something called “the OMNIS.” It sounds suspiciously like the “ominous”, which suggests at least some level of self-awareness on par with the naming of “unobtainium” in Avatar. Naturally, “the OMNIS” is something with massive stakes for the dystopian society, akin to generic microfilm in classic spy capers or a briefcase full of diamonds and case in a heist thriller.

In keeping with the details of this world, “the OMNIS” is effectively a copy of every book ever written, carefully coded and hidden inside a strand of DNA. The implications of this are staggering, the concept having the potential to be as damaging to the oppressive regime as the atomic bomb that drops at the end of the original novel. However, there is absolutely nothing clever about the concept; it is the most obvious large-scale threat imaginable to this fascist government. Similarly, there is nothing clever about the execution of the concept; the film doesn’t even go in for the most obvious twist on the premise.

A towering accomplishment in science-fiction.

As such, “the OMNIS” is a lazy premise that exists to provide a clear and linear structure to the story, to give Beatty and Montag something tangible over which they might fight, and to provide a sense of apocalyptic stakes that might resolve themselves into something resembling a happy ending – or at least the potential of a happy ending. It feels like the laziest possible way to make Fahrenheit 451 more conventionally cinematic, recalling the sorts of awful half-hearted comic book adaptations of the nineties when villains would inevitably be related to the heroes, just to make the narrative more conventional and streamlined.

The result is a narrative that seems to vindicate Bradbury’s skepticism about television as a medium. It is overly simplistic, to the point that it almost feels patronising and condescending. It is so singleminded and straightforward that it obscures a number of other potentially interesting avenues of exploration suggested by the premise. It feels like Fahrenheit 451 is positioning itself as the broadest possible most crowd-pleasing version of the story, while also critiquing the dumbing down of cultural discourse. There is a strange and disorienting dissonance here, an irony that never feels quite intentional.

Montag was going off-book.

Fahrenheit 451 is a beautiful and fascinating misfire.

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One Response

  1. I agree with you on most of your points. The new Fahrenheit 451 builds this beautifully shot bleak world that seems to ensconce around mainly Beatty and Montag—everyone else is just film fodder for their narrative. While I did enjoy all the actor’s contributions to their parts, and everyone involved–from the bit parts to the main characters, I really have to give props to Michael Shannon for the face acting alone. If anyone set the tone for the emotional conflict inside of an existential crisis; it was him.

    Michael B. Jordan brought in a pretty powerful expose of a man birthing a consciousness in a world where this kind of deep reflection is the social equivalent of the most reprehensible behavior imaginable. He manages to carry this version of Montag successfully through the new variation, but it almost seemed a bit ham-handed in the end. Maybe there was no other way to conclude this particular version of the story which became a morality tale about a person who would burn the world to remain a true believer and another who would sacrifice all to move forward and on.

    The original movie seemed more rounded visually and, in comparison, you get immersed in its take on Bradbury’s slightly sci-fi dystopia as immediately horrific in its stunning normality. This was a world colored with the lights and pale shadows that we are familiar with, yet through the lives of its people, we see the darkness and the bleakness of what mind control looks like as an embedded technology that no longer impresses with innovation, but becomes the cage of freedom which we all fear so much more today than we understood then. The original movie is so much less in your face as what is shown in the new movie with its constant night and shadow imagery that only ends up demonstrating just how craggy Shannon’s brooding face can be.

    Besides, the old movie had jetpacks. A future with jetpacks. You can’t beat a vision of the future no matter how bleak when you get jetpacks.

    Fireman burn books. That’s what they do. I did like their take in the new movie about the origins of the fire department with Ben Franklin, Creepy and not so difficult for us to see how revisionists as historians in a full-on oppressive regime can remold our view of what was to what is to what shall be. The new movie takes on the book burning as a way to deal with politically incorrect thinking and all the hoopla we feel out of social media today whenever there is a bitch to pitch was pretty on topic. While the novel and the original movie seems more relevant around the old McCarthyism freak out of that day, Bradbury was clearly concerned with this trend of Nazism in which to re-educate through fire the things that are deemed against the social order.

    The particular twist of who does who with a flamethrower between the new and original movies was also interesting. Also, in the new movie, Montag does not have his wife in which to play off these moments of consciousness pains, but rather everyone’s new companion, Yuxie, which is like Siri and Alexa had a baby with batshit crazy HAL 9000.

    All in all, a good take on a great book and I don’t really want to compare between the old and new movies, as each one of them brings something to Bradbury’s vision. At least compare them in bad ways.

    Unless, well, “Yuxie…go dark.”

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