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‘Fahrenheit 451’ Should Be the Movie We Need Right Now, and Maybe That’s the Problem

The HBO adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic is a little too on the nose, and wastes a wonderful Michael B. Jordan performance

HBO/Ringer illustration

“We need to be really bothered once in a while,” says Guy Montag, the reluctant hero of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. He’s speaking to his wife Mildred, who doesn’t agree. Meek-tempered and perpetually stoned on sleeping pills, Mildred won’t be roused by such uncomfortable ideas. But Montag isn’t really talking to her, anyway: He’s trying to wake himself up.

He’s also speaking for the author. Written in 1953, Bradbury’s book examined the twin poles of passivity and paranoia that defined postwar life in the United States. By imagining a society in which books have been outlawed for the purpose of protecting the populace from dangerous—or even just bothersome—ideas, Fahrenheit 451 prodded an era’s emerging consumerism and reactionary, anti-intellectual political rhetoric. The relationship between the Red Scare and the rise of broadcast television motivated Bradbury to conjure up one of modern literature’s most vivid dystopias, in which literacy is a crime and censorship literally spreads like wildfire. Montag’s job as a “fireman” means incinerating books on sight, relocating the tactics of Nazi Germany to a suburban city. Knowledge is combustible, the canon reduced to ashes: this is America.

Like all truly great allegories, from The War of the Worlds to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t have an expiration date. The great French filmmaker Francois Truffaut directed the first movie adaption in 1966, applying a brightly color-coded aesthetic that fixed the action in the Pop Art era without ever obscuring the work’s anti-fascist subtext.

Sci-fi styles change, but Bradbury’s bleakly bespoke dystopia, in which wide swaths of the social fabric have been sewn in the style of an “I’m With Stupid” T-shirt, is still very much in fashion in 2018. The innovation of Ramin Bahrani’s new HBO adaptation, which is set a decade or so into the future and stars Michael B. Jordan as Montag, is to flip the settings from analog to digital. The modest Midwestern town of the book has been reimagined as a gleaming metropolis where skyscraper facades double as smart screens that project government propaganda. Their glittering steel-and-glass surfaces suggest the LEDs of Time Square refitted as massive Black Mirrors.

As a vision of public and virtual space becoming dangerously enmeshed, this new Fahrenheit 451 has a slightly cheesy sense of visual grandeur, like a B-movie Blade Runner. It’s ambitious without being convincing. It’s also slightly wild that a director who came up under the sign of micro-budget neorealism is working in the genre format. Anybody who guessed back in 2005 that the guy who made Man Push Cart would one day make a splashy action-sci-fi movie should probably have bought a lottery ticket too.

The North Carolina–born filmmaker, whose parents emigrated from Iran in 1968, has always styled himself as a socially conscious auteur. Man Push Cart and Chop Shop were centered on immigrants braving extremes of indifference and intolerance in post-9/11 New York. The hardscrabble visual textures and embedded empathy of these movies—as well as Goodbye Solo, about a Senegalese cab driver plying his trade in North Carolina—made Bahrani into a going concern among art-house audiences and film critics looking for a new hero. Roger Ebert, the director’s greatest champion, picked Chop Shop as one of the best films of the 2000s; the 2009 short Plastic Bag, a gently surreal eco-documentary featuring Werner Herzog as the voice of a plastic bag being blown through city streets and landfills en route to the north Pacific trash vortex, was a relatively early viral video hit.

Bahrani’s fortunes have wobbled a bit since then. The Bible Belt melodrama At Any Price, starring Dennis Quaid as a farmer wrestling with an ethical dilemma, was an embarrassing (mis)step into prestige-pic pretension, including a shameless rip-off of the classic “God Bless America” sequence from The Deer Hunter: In trying to inflate one family’s story into a State of the Union address, Bahrani abandoned the modest, incisive style that distinguished his early work.

His 2014 film 99 Homes was an agile return to form, pitting Andrew Garfield’s cash-strapped, homeless construction worker against Michael Shannon’s unscrupulous real estate operator, in an angry, anxious bailout-era variation on Wall Street. Even if the latter’s Rick Carver never comes out and says that “greed is good,” he’s as much a symbol of malevolent, soul-destroying capitalism as Gordon Gekko, and Shannon plays him with a seriocomic intensity akin to Michael Douglas’s Oscar-winning performance.

Shannon also gets to play the bad guy in Fahrenheit. His Captain Beatty, who commands Montag’s unit, has had his presence beefed up significantly from the book and almost has enough screen time to be considered a lead—and a liability. In 99 Homes, Shannon brought dimension and personality to his character’s nastiness, making him a witty, reptilian, resourceful survivor in a dilapidated, swampy Florida landscape. But here, as in The Shape of Water, he leans too hard into a cartoonish sort of authoritarianism. Introduced beating down Montag in an intramural boxing match, Beatty isn’t just a domineering boss who gets off on violence and power—he’s a gleeful, unrepentant fascist. And, unfortunately, Shannon’s blunt, misjudged performance becomes a microcosm of the movie around him.

Bahrani’s gifts are for small, everyday rhythms and interactions, and glancing social or cultural observations captured on the fly. If he’d found a way to apply that style to this story—to make its nightmare environment seem intimate and naturalistic—then he’d have made something worthy and maybe even terrific out of the material. But instead of trusting the audience to recognize the present-tense resonance of Bradbury’s themes, he italicizes them and adds exclamation points at regular intervals. Sci-fi allegories don’t have to be subtle, but some moments here are so heavily on the nose that viewers will end up with a deviated septum. I don’t know if there’s been a more cringe-worthy scene in 2018 than when a group of jacked-up firemen chant “Time to burn for America Again.” The only thing worse than film criticism that asks what “Movie X means in the age of Trump” is when Movie X serves that reading up on a silver platter.

While Shannon’s acting represents what’s wrong with this version of Fahrenheit 451, his costar’s work is the best thing that it has going for it. A sense of slow-dawning self-awareness is something that Jordan does really well. It was the key to his work in Creed, where Donnie’s gradual embrace of his hated birthright paradoxically allowed him to finally become his own man. See also: Killmonger’s affecting final scene in Black Panther.

Jordan acts Montag’s transformation from pumped-up, combination super-cop-reality-television star to reluctant culture warrior with real finesse. The reason the character is irresistible on the page is because he discovers the nourishment of narrative and, as such, becomes a mirror for the reader and their own enjoyment of Bradbury’s prose. Jordan’s ability to suggest a consciousness being raised in real time honors this effect. It’s a nice touch that this iteration of Montag gets into books via a contradband copy of Notes From Underground, a major influence on George Orwell’s 1984, which in turns was one of the literary inspirations for Fahrenheit 451.

Actually, there are a bunch of nice touches, like the early reveal that works of literature like Moby-Dick are still taught in school curricula via glowing emoji, or that the government’s anti-culture crusade encompasses movies as well as books (leading to a shot of a melting DVD of Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which may be Bahrani’s sardonic nod to his Bavarian friend and mentor). A few of the new details in the script (by Bahrani and Amir Naderi) are ideologically double-edged, like the suggestion that the government’s book-burning mandate began as an outgrowth of outrage culture—as a version of political correctness run amok. This at least complicates the production’s obvious progressive subtext. And even though Bahrani doesn’t do well overall with the required visual spectacle or action-movie choreography, he nails the final sequence, locating an elegant, original way to visualize Bradbury’s climactic idea of literacy rising from the ashes like a phoenix while also calling back to imagery from Chop Shop.

The beauty of these closing moments, while real, is also frustrating, hinting at the possibility of a better, less bombastic movie. As an attempt to really bother an audience, Fahrenheit 451 is a failure; at best, it’s a mildly irritating waste of some major talent.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.