The Bill of Rights tells us that it’s better to be happy than free. One of the authors of the Bill of Rights was Benjamin Franklin, who created the very first fire department in order to burn books more efficiently.
If you lived in the world of the new HBO version of Fahrenheit 451, which premiered tonight at the Cannes Film Festival and will air on the network next Saturday, you would believe all that and more, even though none of it was true.
But you already do live in that world, kind of. And a big part of what makes Fahrenheit so bracing is the way that it breaks it down for us.
The seeds of the future depicted by writer-director Ramin Bahrani were planted long ago by Ray Bradbury, whose same-named 1953 Orwellian novel was set in an illiterate, hedonistic dystopia that had declared books illegal. Fire departments doubled as stormtroopers, helping the government control the minds as well as the activities of citizens by roasting the homes and possessions of anyone convicted of possessing books. The entire citizenry, including the firemen, were made more mentally pliable through prescribed drugs, and got most of their information from wall-sized televisions broadcasting mind-numbing drivel and state propaganda. The book’s hero, fireman Guy Montag, eventually goes against his own government (which tends to happen in stories like this), and the book escalates into an emotional as well as literal conflagration before ending on a reflective, shamefaced note.
Bahrani — an Iranian-American filmmaker whose filmography includes Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and At Any Price — casts a more jaundiced eye on the United States circa 2018 than Bradbury did in the 1950s, when he was worried about the paranoid, authoritarian, anti-intellectual tendencies of the McCarthy era, as well as the sudden infiltration of televisions into the majority of American homes. (TV is a creepy, invasive force in a lot of Bradbury’s short fiction, “The Veldt” in particular.) This is a bleak film that ends on a much more wrenching note than Bradbury’s source; while not entirely a downer, it embeds any hopefulness it might possess in a wordless image that might take some effort to decode. This is a highly idiosyncratic and personal adaptation of a classic science fiction novel, more temperamentally aligned with brainy, slightly chilly science fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, A Clockwork Orange, Gattaca, and Ex Machina than dystopian epics that lean on scale and mayhem. It should also be considered one of the key pop culture works of the Trump era. It speaks directly to the persistent cultural conditions (chiefly anti-intellectualism) that made Trump possible, as well as to the sorry state of the country at the time of the film’s release.
Bahrani began adapting Bradbury’s novel in election year 2016, and shot it (with Michael B. Jordan as Montag and Michael Shannon as his boss, Captain Beatty) in 2017. It feels timeless, but also very much of-the-time. More so than Francois Truffaut’s 1966 version of Fahrenheit — which seemed to get so tangled up in translating a French New Wave filmmaker’s sensibility to the Hollywood system that it never attained a personality of its own — this Fahrenheit is distinctive, so on-message from one moment to the next, and so scary in both its depictions and implications, that there are times where it feels as if it’s intellectually brutalizing the audience, slapping viewers across the face to get them to wake up from a stupor.
The first third of Fahrenheit plunges us eyeball-deep into the mind-set of American fascists, good soldiers who believe deeply in their mission to crush dissent and homogenize society intellectually since they can’t homogenize it culturally. The fully indoctrinated and wildly enthusiastic Montag roasts books and brutalizes citizens in order to demonstrate that he’s absorbed the values of his supervisor and surrogate daddy, Beatty, who raised him from childhood after Montag’s father died. The circumstances of that death (and the fate of the rest of his family) are a bit fuzzy, and they only gain a wee bit more clarity as the film goes on because Montag is recalling them through a haze of memory-weakening, defiance-sapping pharmaceuticals delivered via eyedrop (a great touch that connects reading and watching).
Although it’s set in a mid-sized Ohio city, it depicts a physical world that’s merely an adjunct to the virtual one that dominates people’s waking life and feeds them approved thoughts. The old days are described as unruly, an intellectual wild west in which books and publications could say almost anything they wanted, and people argued about ideas. This, Beatty tells Montag, is how they ended up in a second civil war that killed 8 million Americans, including Beatty’s own father. In order to prevent more wars, Beatty says, society must become monolithic, waging constant war against “eels” (short for “illegals”). Bahrani avoids allowing this sentiment to lapse into such vagueness that anyone can treat Fahrenheit as their own personal self-justifying metaphor: the film makes it clear that the ruling class has drawn self-interested conclusions and acted accordingly, and that the values of Beatty’s bosses are strictly monocultural, that no dissent is allowed here, and those with physical limitations or deformities (such as the two blind people and a citizen with Down syndrome shown huddled in an abandoned building) are not welcome in broad daylight. Unauthorized writing is called “graffiti,” and holding it, circulating it, or uploading it to the official state-run internet (called the Nine) is a crime. The number of languages actively spoken in around the world has been reduced from hundreds to 16. The plan, whatever it is, appears to be working.
The fact that Montag is a black man serving what appears to be a white-dominated, heavily militarized government seems at first to have been downplayed by Bahrani. But soon enough, you realize that he’s dealing with it in other ways, through haunting, fragmented images, and in the play of feeling across Jordan’s expressive face and the sadness and terror in his eyes. The more we see of the incident involving Montag’s father, the more it suggests an imminent police murder or vigilante killing. This makes it seem as if Montag has been assimilated into the body politic of the state that wrecked his childhood: he lost his black father and now concentrates on pleasing his white father. It seems as if rebellion is not an option for Montag because the thought would never occur to him. The thought would never occur to him because the state’s mission to eradicate all trace of non-state-approved texts has been very successful. While sifting through a library of forbidden books, Beatty tells Montag that Huckleberry Finn was banned because “some people” were offended by Mark Twain’s use of the N-word, then picks up a copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son and tells him that other people (authoritarian whites, presumably) wanted that one banned for different reasons. “What didn’t they like about it?” Montag asks, but Beatty doesn’t reply.
Some of the state-sponsored violence in the film attains an almost Kubrickian level of discomfort. Bahrani’s staging links the science fiction brutality shown here to violence that real-life civilians experience at the hands of uniformed Americans (domestically and abroad). Soldiers kick down doors, beat people on the street, destroy offending materials, and chant marching songs to get their adrenaline flowing and feel like they’re part of one, big, wonderful team of brothers. They take pleasure in dominating, abusing, and humiliating unarmed people, even as they claim it’s all for the greater good of the fatherland and that they’re just regular working stiffs doing their jobs.
Montag eventually excavates his buried conscience and starts to realize that he did not arrive at this juncture without being systematically conditioned over the course of a lifetime. Although Bahrani avoids adding an obligatory love story, the relationship between Montag and the resistance fighter Clarisse (Sofia Boutella) has the feel of a romance based in intellectual awakening. But this is not the kind of movie in which a sensitive, handsome man can simply decide to become a better man and start killing off bad guys by the cartload en route to receiving a medal and a kiss on the cheek. Montag’s struggle is mainly conveyed through Jordan’s reactive performance, as he stands there enduring the verbal assaults of his bad father Beatty, a tinpot dictator who proclaims, while leading police on a burning spree, “They tried to say there’s no evidence danger exists … well, show me the evidence danger doesn’t exist.” The remainder of the film is more conventional, and its outcome feels more inevitable — it’s hard to imagine a story like this getting greenlit if it were just about a fascist soldier who was horrible to people and never changed — but the sense of overwhelming unease, punctuated by moments of shock and nauseating images of the classics of world literature being incinerated, never loses its power to disturb.
Long stretches of Fahrenheit are about as subtle as a labor leaflet or a soapbox sermon, and it makes no apology for this aspect of its method. Bahrani is a true believer in the power of the morality play: see 99 Homes, a film about the 2008 economic meltdown modeled on Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, with Shannon in the Michael Douglas part. Fahrenheit is about cultural domination, annexation, brainwashing, and the reproduction of ideology that strengthens the state and sows fear in the hearts of its critics. It’s the kind of film in which characters read each other’s emotional states or political convictions and then verbalize them in terms of analogies. Fully half the lines out of Shannon’s mouth are aphorisms that could be printed on an Inspirational Quote of the Day calendar marketed to sadists who worship power. (“If you don’t want a person to be unhappy, don’t give them two sides of a question to worry about,” Beatty tells the troops.) The burning of books is treated as the visually arresting cornerstone of a larger project to defoliate or destroy the historical memories of Americans, and make them fear and loathe any thought not served up by the government and the corporate media (depicted here as cheerleaders for the state). The movie makes the same argument in favor of a robust and humanistic culture that A Clockwork Orange makes for the necessity of free will: It may produce some bad results, but it’s still vastly preferable to the alternative. A handful of colors predominate: inky black, flame orange, puke green, and police-light red and blue, the colors of a nation that demonizes intellectuals and education, is fueled by fear, and nakedly worships power and cruelty. This society not only refuses to entertain anti-authoritarian sentiments, it makes reality TV-style superstars of skull-cracking cops like Montag and Beatty, and broadcasts their adventures on video screens throughout the city, including gigantic ones plastered across the faces of skyscrapers. As one character casually mentions, in the time “before bots and automated writing … nobody was reading any more, or they were just glancing at headlines generated by an algorithm.” That time sounds like the time we’re in right now. Bahrani is showing us is where he thinks we’re headed.