Come Alive: The Promise (and Problems) With the Greatest Showman

Things I’m a sucker for:

  • Singing
  • Dancing
  • Movies that make me feel all the feelings

In the span of about 72 hours, I managed to see “The Greatest Showman” twice. Once with my lovely husband and once with a dear friend. I left the theater both times smiling like an idiot and having had a wonderful time. There was something magical about that theater experience; the empowerment and promise all wrapped up in one.

At its core, “The Greatest Showman” is about humanity at it’s best and worst. The outcasts, the ostracized, the lonely…they all find a place to belong in the world of this PT Barnum and his circus. The film is a celebration of what the world should be like – a place where you are loved and cherished for who you are – a place where you can find your tribe – a place where everyone has a place.

With the music, the spectacle and the joy, “The Greatest Showman” stands as a film that is both shocking in simplicity and empowering in its¬†message. If you can walk out of the theater and not spend the next few days humming the songs, you’re a better person than I.

But, there is more to consider. It is well-documented that the real PT Barnum was, well, not a nice human. He was accused of treating his “freaks” poorly, his animals even worse, and a number of atrocities. There is a lot about the life of PT Barnum that is not brought up on the surface of the movie. His life was about the bottom line, about fitting in, about being the best.

For some, those errors are reason enough to not experience the movie. For others, they don’t care because the movie is never billed as a history or biography of the great Showman.

Here’s what I noticed upon the second viewing: If you watch and know, there are moments when the darker side of Barnum’s character come out:

  • When trying to recruit his first “freak,” he says, “They’re going to laugh at you anyway, so you might as well make some money.”
  • He’s call out for oddballs and oddities is cruel; the people that point out the “freaks” to him are even crueler
  • He exploits and contorts some of his sideshow¬†participants to make them even more “freakish” than they already are to the world
  • He lies and cons his way into money more than once, and without talking to his wife.
  • He’s more concerned with the show than the hearts of the people
  • He abandons the people he brought together when the “legitimate” Jenny Lind comes along
  • He has an emotional (at the very least) affair with Jenny Lind
  • He makes fun of Carlisle for living the very life he himself wishes he had

The great showman is not always the hero of his own story. He is shockingly human and flawed. But, at its heart, “The Greatest Showman” is not the story of PT Barnum; it’s the story of the misfits and miscreants that he threw together that somehow formed a family. Despite all Barnum doesn’t do for them, they are family and family sticks together.

For me, the wonder outweighs the need for it to be true to life. There is a lot of dark, scary, and worrisome in the world. I will take a couple hours of dreaming about how the world could be over a real-life biopic any day of the week.

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