Review: It isn’t called ‘The Most Honest Showman’ for a reason

Ysabela Golden

Technically speaking, “The Greatest Showman” is a biographical film about the life of P.T. Barnum, a man who was many things—a politician, con man, author, philanthropist—but primarily, at least according to himself, an entertainer. Since Barnum was historically infamous for his opinion that entertainment is most enjoyable at its least truthful, it makes a lot of sense that a movie allegedly depicting his life story would be almost entirely fictional. Having fact-checked the movie’s plot after seeing it, I’m led to wonder if that was the point of the film from its inception and throughout its entire production: to be just one long con on the movie-going public. Or maybe Hollywood just doesn’t like telling the truth about famous people. Either way, don’t go to this biographical film expecting an actual biography, and don’t look up pictures of the actual P.T. Barnum expecting him to be as good-looking as Hugh Jackman. You’ll just be disappointed. 

What won’t disappoint you is the movie’s stunning visuals, costuming and choreography. “The Greatest Showman” choreographer, Ashley Wallen, takes complete advantage of all the different angles and perspectives a musical performed on film (as opposed to on the stage) allows, and the result is some of the most nonstop, breathtaking staging I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame that there’s no Oscar or Golden Globe for “Best Choreography.” The music in this movie wasn’t all that original or memorable compared to every other musical that’s come out over the last decade, but Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s “This Is Me” did still manage to steal the Golden Globe for “Best Song,” just like “City of Stars” did from the soundtrack they did for “La La Land.” So, if you thought that win was justified, you’ll probably enjoy the music in this movie, too. 

But what really brings to life the movie’s (almost entirely fabricated) story is the powerful acting from Michelle Williams as Charity Barnum, Zendaya as fictional trapeze artist Zendaya and of course Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum himself. Their strong characterization and the audience’s emotional attachment to their individual stories, rather than the film’s less-than-original overarching message of “being different is great,” is what carries the narrative from one musical number to the next. In fact, the movie is probably best experienced by ignoring its claims of historical accuracy and just enjoying the characters as fictional creations without constantly speculating as to how truthful they are to the actual humans they reference.

So, if you’ve become numb to Hollywood’s longstanding tradition of blatantly lying to its audience about historical figures and events, consider giving Jackman’s Barnum a shot. Even those who aren’t necessarily fans of musicals can appreciate the acting and cinematography that went into its production. Regardless of factuality, “The Greatest Showman” is a captivating (if somewhat ironic) depiction of a man who was, to be sure, one of the better showmen out there.