“Please be advised that Bergeron is a genius and an athlete…If you see this man please contact your local authorities immediately.” This is the warning a broadcaster from the National News Service in Washington, D.C., gives the public about a certain prison escapee in the year 2081. Wait a minute, you object – since when is being a genius, or an athlete, or both together, a crime?
The answer is, ever since a totalitarian government of the United States in the not-too-distant future said so — and was emphatic about it. In Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron,” and in this gripping 26-minute film adaptation of it, the 211th, 212th and 213th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution have seen to it that “everybody was finally equal.”
Everybody was so equal, in fact, that as the film narrator (Patricia Clarkson) remarks (in the past tense), nobody was smarter, better looking, stronger or quicker than anybody else. Wait a minute, you object again – some people are smarter, better looking, stronger, and quicker than others, so how could they possibly have become no longer the way God endowed them and meant them to be?
The explanation lies in “the unceasing vigilance of the United States Handicapper General.” That official (Tammy Bruce) and the jackbooted thugs who are her enforcers – saw to it that “The strong wore weights to make them weaker” and “The intelligent wore earpieces that kept them from taking unfair advantage of their brains.” And the beautiful were made to wear full-face masks.
“It was the Golden Age of Equality,” says narrator Clarkson. Indeed. We can say that this regime has “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” but, like the French Revolution itself, sans the liberté, minus the fraternité and lacking actual égalité. So how does omnipotent rule by the Handicapper General play out in people’s lives? (By the way, “Handicapper” is the noun and “General” is the modifier, contrary to a misusage current today in which people who should know better address the Surgeon General as “General.”)
The Bergerons are an older couple. Strongly built and intelligent George (James Cosmo) wears a weight on his chest and has earpieces. Hazel (Julie Hagerty) literally tends to her knitting all the time, so she has no such state-mandated handicaps. As they watch the Sleeping Beauty ballet live on state-run TV, George has flashbacks to the time “H-G” agents broke into their apartment and kidnapped their teenage son Harrison – but a loud, crackling burst in his earpieces jolts him out of the memory.
The ballet dancers wear handicaps, too, and at one point two of them fall down. Suddenly a news alert appears on the screen. A stuttering broadcaster (Yuris Skujins) tries in vain to read a text, so a replacement (David Healy) does the honors. It seems “suspected anarchist Harrison Bergeron….has miraculously disappeared from his cell” after being held for “propagandist vandalism, broadcast piracy, refusal to report for his quarterly handicapping evaluation and for the blatant removal of his handicaps in a public place.”
Hazel is in the kitchen washing the dishes, but George is still watching the TV as the regular program returns. Yet now the show is anything but regular, because Harrison (Armie Hammer) breaks into the theater. Literally yoked, and oppressively weighted down, he proceeds to the stage, dragging a hapless usher with him. “Quiet!” he bellows, and announces that a bomb is beneath the theater and he has a detonator.
Harrison identifies himself and tells the audience he’s been held prisoner for the last six years and tortured without end. “They hope to destroy in me any trace of the extraordinary…But the extraordinary, it seems, is simply out of their reach. So now I stand before you today, beaten, hobbled and sickened, but…not broken.” As George watches at home, Harrison breaks free of his yoke, weights and shackles and calls for a volunteer to join him. One ballerina (Alina Faye) comes to him, throwing off her handicaps along the way.
Harrison gently removes her mask and whispers to her. Meanwhile, the Handicapper General and scores of security personnel are in the building, getting ready to pounce. They think they’ve cut the live broadcast, but they don’t know Harrison’s “detonator” was a switch that kept the show on the air. Now Harrison looks at the camera and makes a slight nod, figuring correctly that his Dad must be watching.
At home, George is enthralled and beams with pride. Harrison and the ballerina begin to dance to the inexpressibly noble strains of a lone cellist. What happens next you can speculate about; suffice to say that Hazel has finished up the dishes and George has received terrible jolts from his earpieces. She asks him what’s wrong and, evidently not recalling anything, he replies, “Something sad on the television tonight.” Another awful jolt hits him. Hazel tells him to forget sad things and resumes her knitting.
William F. Buckley, Jr. reprinted Vonnegut’s story in National Review in 1965. Though a short, this film, “2081,” is a powerful parable and faithful reflection of Vonnegut’s vision of how the best in the human spirit can succumb to collectivism, tyranny, and the suppression of individual freedom. The film also serves as an unforgettable reminder of what horrors happen when the State seeks to play God.
This movie is unrated, but there is no profanity and no sex/nudity. Menace and non-graphic violence are present. Chandler Tuttle directed the film, wrote the script, was the film editor, and makes a cameo appearance. Lee Brooks was the composer and Austin Schmidt the cinematographer. Tony Tharae did production design and visual effects and makes a cameo.
— Dan Engler