In the latter half of the 19th century, Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman), whose early traveling circus paved the way for his emergence as one of the world’s first and foremost circus owners, thrived as a politician, a writer, and, some might say, a charlatan. But director Michael Gracey’s slick, relentlessly bombastic musical The Greatest Showman would have you believe that he lived solely for the pleasure of entertaining. Barnum’s many contradictions and personae are just too much for the film to process. Here, every character exists only to bring his dream to life, and almost every musical number is an exaltation of his ingenuity, the sole exception being “Rewrite the Stars,” a love song between Zac Efron and Zendaya’s characters that, ironically, is the film’s most technically impressive, emotionally gratifying sequence.
In condensing Barnum’s life into a generic rags-to-riches story, as well as taking great liberties with the timeline of many real events, The Greatest Showman mythologizes Barnum as a kind-hearted soul who celebrates and humanizes his various “curiosities,” specifically little person General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) and bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), while ignoring the blatantly exploitative nature of the business practices which helped make these individuals famous. The film never presents itself as a historical biopic so its fudging of dates and facts isn’t inherently problematic. Yet the filmmakers perpetually reframe Barnum’s ruthless, self-aggrandizing tactics as minor flaws that those closest to him overlook because of an unflappable desire to see him achieve his dreams.
In the film’s second musical number, “A Million Dreams,” Barnum sings to his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), “I think of what the world could be/A vision of the one I see,” to which Charity, who’s already given up a life of luxury to marry him, responds in complete deference: “You may be right, you may be wrong/But say that you’ll bring me along.” These lines aren’t only a perfect summation of Charity’s lack of agency, but also that of Barnum’s band of “oddities,” who remain ever grateful to him for bringing them into the public spotlight, where they’re greeted with immediate respect and acceptance rather than seen as the “freaks” that Barnum actually marketed them as.
Barnum’s sycophants also include his business associates, most prominently Phillip Carlyle (Efron), a theater owner who loses his hefty inheritance when he runs away to join the circus and serve as Barnum’s partner and protégé. And there’s also the famous singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the “Swedish Nightingale,” whom Barnum plucked from the European stage to tour tirelessly across America. Barnum uses Phillip and Jenny as a gateway to the upper crust of society, yet the filmmakers present Barnum’s actions toward them as more altruistic than self-serving by focusing only on Phillip and Jenny’s booming careers once they’ve placed their trust in the ringleader.
The P.T. Barnum of The Greatest Showman is a capitalist Übermensch disguised as a man of and for the people, a swindler whose relentless self-promotion is masked not only by the absurd degree that nearly everyone fawns over his greatness but also by the songs that praise his egalitarian legacy. Even the pretentious theater critic who scorns Barnum early in the film comes around by the end, telling him that his work is a celebration of life. This revisionist hagiography plays like an Ayn Randian tribute to good old-fashioned ingenuity and hard work, where Barnum is the John Galt single-handedly holding the nascent showbiz world upon his shoulders and everyone from his wife to his employees exists either to support him or to get out of his way. Although the film appears to be constructed as a showpiece for Jackman’s song-and-dance skills, its spectacle is overshadowed by its archaic and misguided notions of American exceptionalism.