Contemporary Hollywood has become an echo chamber of social justice and liberal ideology. Just watch any entertainment awards ceremony and you’ll surely receive a dissertation on America’s sins and injustices.
Yet every once in a while, a movie is produced that captures the essence of American exceptionalism. Such is why the recent release of The Greatest Showman is so notable. As Brittany Hunter points out in The Greatest Showman and the Beauty of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, this movie defies the conventional Hollywood narrative by shining a positive light on American values.
Above all, The Greatest Showman is a tribute to the resilience and power of the entrepreneurial spirit.
The film tells the story of P.T. Barnum, the man responsible for the founding of the Ringling Brothers Circus. I don’t know much about the real-life P.T. Barnum, but the character in the film, as depicted by Hugh Jackman, is the hero I wish to discuss.
Born into nothing, Barnum is a lowly servant with big dreams working in a wealthy household. Without a family or support system, he is forced to learn how to rely on himself from a very young age. And no matter how cruel the rest of the world treats him, he is unfazed by the opinions and actions of others.
After getting in trouble for teasing his employer’s daughter, Barnum is struck hard in the face. But this does not lessen his resolve for greatness. Surrounded by luxuries far beyond his own means, Barnum gets a glimpse of the life he could live if he were to rise above his circumstances. So he commits himself to achieving something amazing and larger than himself.
As The Greatest Showman demonstrates, P.T. Barnum possessed the entrepreneurial spirit that fueled the rags-to-riches trajectory of so many great Americans. Unlike the class warfare and anti-business attitudes perpetuated in most modern films, The Greatest Showmanrejects class envy and embraces P.T. Barnum’s extraordinary tenacity and work ethic.
Using all the money he has, he purchases a building and turns it into “Barnum’s American Museum.” Unfortunately, this venture is a dud. The only tickets he sells are to his wife and two daughters. So, like a good entrepreneur, Barnum goes back to the drawing board to figure out what the people actually want.
What is most admirable about this part of Barnum’s life is his unwavering dedication to hard work. Stories about lackadaisical dreamers often place too much emphasis on the dreams themselves, and not what it takes to make those dreams become a reality.
Regardless of Barnum’s dreams and work ethic, all would have been for naught unless he provided a product or service that people wanted. According to Hunter, this economic lesson turns out to be one of the central messages of the film.
Barnum longs to give the world something extraordinary, the likes of which they have never seen. But he realizes he cannot do this by merely imitating what has already been done. He decides to do something bolder, and by doing so, he ends up adding value to the world in ways he never imagined.
The market is the great equalizer, as this film drives home. Barnum’s original museum highlighted the spectacular and unbelievable marvels of the world. Unfortunately, none of these rarities were real. His original museum relied on poor quality replicas of mermaids and other mythical phenomena, which were not appealing to consumers. But the lack of customers drives Barnum to go in search of real, and rare, human acts.
Lettie Lutz, later known as “the bearded lady,” is resigned to a life of shame and isolation. She has no aspirations aside from keeping her head down while doing laundry for a living. But that was before she met Barnum.
After putting up signs looking for rare and exotic acts for his upcoming production, Barnum stumbles upon Lettie and is taken aback by her stellar vocal abilities. He begs her to join his act as a singer.
Barnum’s enthusiasm for his project is contagious, and Lutz agrees to come aboard. His excitement from finding Lutz redoubles his resolve to put together the greatest show on earth.
Barnum goes around collecting other so-called “circus freaks,” ranging from the incredibly tall to the incredibly tattooed and even a death-defying trapeze act. Barnum’s gang of outcasts set out not only to prove they deserve to be a part of society but that they have value to add to the world through entertainment. And this is when Barnum’s production really begins to take off.
As Barnum predicted, audiences were both shocked and thrilled to see such unique individuals brazenly performing. In 1850, when the film is set, being different was no cause for celebration. If you did not fit into society’s prescribed boxes, you didn’t belong. It was as simple as that. But by offering something consumers craved, these unconventional performers took their supposed “flaws” and turned them into a sought-after market entity.
Film critics have been quick to condemn this aspect of the film as “exploitation,” since Barnum earned a profit off of his rare performers. But each member of Barnum’s circus was there because he or she wanted to be. Voluntary association is not exploitation, especially when the performers themselves were able to improve their standard of living and their own emotional well being.
Like most people, Barnum did experience his series of ups and downs. The culminating scene in in The Greatest Showman occurs after Barnum experiences a personal and professional setback of epic proportions.
A mob of citizens angry that such unconventional performers were being allowed on stage set fire to his building, turning his dreams into ashes.
After a brief period of doubt and desolation, Barnum snaps back into entrepreneur mode and finds a way to continue his show. Since he cannot afford to rebuild or purchase a new facility, Barnum has the genius idea to save on overhead costs by using large tents instead: the same tents that are now so closely associated with circuses. Little did we know as children that these tents first emerged as an entrepreneurial response to tragedy.
But the entrepreneurial spirit is one of dedication and resilience. And through all of the disappointment and struggles, Barnum was able to leave a legacy behind not only for himself, but for each performer who found personal liberation through his show. He was also able to provide for his family and give them the life he dreamed of as a young boy.
While this movie has been unjustly panned by many critics, it is resonating with entrepreneurs and reminding them to hold fast and work hard to make their dreams a reality.
The Greatest Showman is one of the rare instances when Hollywood produces an uplifting film that celebrates American history and values. Although it probably won’t win a vaunted award, it is a tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit that has made America the most free and prosperous nation in world history.