God’s Not Dead, but the Movie Sucks

MrsLarijani and I watched God’s Not Dead (GND) last night. We had heard good things about it, as opposed to Noah and Son of God. Moreover, others in our church small group wanted to see it. So, we went to a theater in Lexington.

I was sorely disappointed. It may be a step up from the horrid 1970s end-times-based movie A Thief in the Night (and the sequels), but, compared to Fireproof and Facing the Giants–with which I had no small number of misgivings–it was a gigantic step backward.

The entire plot of GND was awful, and it was all downhill from there, devolving into a game of “Count the cliches”.

The late novelist Tom Clancy once summarized the difference between fiction and non-fiction: “Fiction has to make sense.” Very little of the plot of GND made sense.

The primary antagonist–philosophy Professor Radisson, who pressured students at the beginning of the semester to sign a statement saying, “God is dead”, and challenging the protagonist (Josh Wheaton) to three twenty-minute presentations to make a case for God, with the class deciding the winner–was utterly unrealistic.

While many philosophy professors–perhaps most–are in fact Atheists or Agnostics, very few of them are abrasive with students. In fact, the overwhelming majority of them, irrespective of their religious leanings, are are systematic and professional. When hot topics–such as the existence of God–come up, they welcome the input of Christians and others with various perspectives. This is because, as off the rails as they may be, they respect, as a matter of principle, people who think for themselves. They usually pride themselves on their ability to stoke productive and spirited debates. This is why I found the fictional Professor Radisson to be woefully unrealistic.

I also found myself conflicted with the portrayal of Wheaton’s “Christian girlfriend”, as she dumped him after he insisted on challenging Professor Radisson. If anything, I thought that she would have been drawn to him for standing up for himself.

(In my single days, I sparred–sometimes very heatedly–with many a hardcore atheist feminist. What’s funny about that: most of them privately said they admired me for making my case and not backing down. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was part of the dynamics of Game. Then again, given that I found myself single for many years, perhaps Christian women are conditioned to be drawn to a different type of persona.)

The character development was similarly short of the glory. The fictional Josh Wheaton was a freshman who, upon accepting the challenge, rose to the occasion, providing well-animated presentations that would wow a corporate board, presenting with the skill of a graduate student while communicating at a common level. This is a skill that I find in very few people, and those are usually older, well-educated adults who have extensive experience thinking and presenting.

While the case that he makes for God is not a bad one–and the way he addressed the problem of evil was pretty sound–his character portrayal in the movie is inadequate and not congruent with reality. His responses to Professor Radisson’s angry expressions of personal suffering were lacking in either compassion or empathy.

Had the crew wished to present a more realistic dialogue, they could have done some homework and pulled from the C.S. Lewis-J.R.R Tolkien playbook: Professor Radisson had many of the same issues that C.S. Lewis had during his days as an Atheist. Presenting a more productive and collegial debate between Wheaton and Radisson–with perhaps including the insights of professors who were believers–yes, they are out there!–would have had great appeal. In GND, none of the academics are presented as Christians.

As for some of the other particulars:

  • While I have nothing against the Robertson family, Willie’s appearance struck me as loud, out of touch, and unnecessarily contentious. It fed the “Professor=BAD/Student=GOOD” cliche.
  • The gonzo blogger/journalist–Amy Ryan (played by Trisha LaFache)–was a comical vegan/uber-liberal troublemaker whose cancer diagnosis, and subsequent rejection by a Roissy-like boyfriend, sent her world crashing down. Her conversion struck me as cliche, but others may differ on that.

For some of the characters I felt were better-developed:

  • Aisha, the Islamic-raised student who hid her Christian faith before finally being outed by her brother and disowned by her devout Muslim father, was fairly realistic. Had she come from a secular Muslim family, the tension would have been minimal, but, in a hardcore family, this would have been a very big deal. Honor killings are not unheard of in cases like hers, and disownment is very likely.
  • The Chinese student who contended with his father about the discussions in the class–and eventually received Christ–was realistic. The lines of reasoning by his father were exactly what you expect from a secular Chinese; his initial confusion with Wheaton’s acceptance of Raddison’s challenge was also expected.
  • Professor Radisson’s girlfriend (Mina, played by Cory Oliver)–who was a Christian conflicted by her relationship with an avowed Atheist who constantly belittled her in front of others. Her character is semi-realistic.
  • While GND has its strong points, one has to fight through the cliches and other cheesy presentations to appreciate them.

    What angers me about the movie: it has dubious appeal to a skeptic. Rather than make an engaging, collegial “come, let us reason together” case for God, it was more of a rallying cry for cultural fundamentalists and a “Screw you!” to intellectuals, all wrapped up in cliche, bad plot development, and incomplete character development.

    Why do Christians have to be the poster children for Movies That Suck?

Movie Review: Fireproof

Alex and Stephen Kendrick’s latest film–Fireproof–will make a lot of money. It will promote some very important realities dear to Christians and vital to the Christian message: the persevering work of Jesus Christ, demonstrated on the cross; the sanctity of the marriage covenant; that tough marriages are–more often than not–salvageable. For those reasons alone, it is worth the viewing. For the Christian considering marriage, it is recommended for reasons on which I will elaborate.

Fireproof is about a couple–Caleb and Catherine Holt–whose marriage, in spite of a well-to-do economic situation, is self-destructing rapidly.

Caleb, a firefighter, is a stereotypical materialistic, narcissist, porn-addicted male who pays no attention–other than economic and sexual–to his wife. He packs away money for an expensive boat while his mother-in-law wallows in paralysis from a stroke, in need of a hospital bed and wheelchair that his boat savings would cost. He wonders why his wife doesn’t respect him.

Catherine, who works at the local hospital, uses her income to take care of her and Caleb’s monthly expenses, struggles to cope with her mother’s health, and has fallen out of love with her husband, who humiliates her with his porn addiction and fails to help her emotionally and shows little regard for her. She is further discouraged by the busybodies with whom she works–as she shares her dirty laundry with them–and is finding herself charmed by an opportunistic physician–Gavin–who has romantic designs on her.

After a monumental blowup, Catherine decides she wants out of the marriage.

Caleb’s father, a Christian whose marriage was saved in no small part by his conversion to the faith–challenges his son to do the 40-day “Love Dare”, a product of the Kendricks that will also be published commercially as a book for marriage restoration. The heart of the movie focuses on Caleb’s going on the “love dare” in a last-ditch effort to save his marriage.

Does it get a little cheesy? At times. It is difficult to work Christian pilgrimmage events–such as receiving Jesus Christ–into a movie without having that effect.

Even then, Fireproof does get a very important point home on that front: receiving Jesus Christ does not necessarily guarantee that everything will be peaches and cream and then suddenly everyone starts getting kissy-kissy/huggy-huggy. A broken marriage may become less broken when one–or both–partners get saved, but there are no guarantees of immediate turnaround. It is possible, but there are no guarantees. When Caleb receives Christ, his problems do not end, and in fact get even more excruciating.

Do I have gripes with the movie? You bet:

(1) While Fireproof does not dismiss the faults of the wife, one can get the faulty impression from this movie that her depravity would not exist but for his. That is pure headship theology, which is best-described by an 8-letter word rooted deep in our agricultural heritage. Caleb is portrayed in far less favorable terms than his wife.

He is the one with 95% of the problems. He is the one who is porn-addicted and materialistic, caring not that his mother-in-law rots in paralysis while he saves for a boat. He is the one who is insensitive to her needs. Even her faults are construed against the backdrop of his, which minimizes hers. Anakin and Triton would [rightfully] blast this movie to kingdom come.

On these pages, equality in depravity is very important. Our regular contributors include a gal whose husband of 20 years cavorted with prostitutes, and a guy whose wife of nearly 20 years left him for another man.

The Kendricks, sadly, seem to have fallen for the mistaken notion that it’s the men with all the problems and that if the men were lighting up the world for Jesus, then the women would all be these wonderful, angelic near-sinless beings.

It doesn’t work that way: total depravity is no respecter of sexes.

(2) I know some firefighters. They are fitness nuts–probably my biggest fitness competitors in the gym–and, as far as lifestyles go, they are not dirt-poor. But still, they do not have the high lifestyle that the Holts enjoy in Fireproof. This detail may sound petty, but it detracts from the reality faced by most Christians I know.

(3) While it would be difficult to address all the complexities of marital situations, the couple in Fireproof were both non-believers. What about the case of both husband and wife as believers? How do those play out? What about the case of a believing wife (husband) and a nonbelieving husband (wife)? In the Church, you are more likely to address the latter two scenarios, and not the first.

Still, there are themes that make the movie worth watching: (a) the Gospel is well-represented, especially against the backdrop of a husband’s heartfelt attempt to woo his wife, and her rejection of him; and (b) the sanctity and permanence of the marriage covenant. Those items alone make the movie a good one to see before you get married.

My score: 6 out of 10.

Live Free or Die Hard: Great Movie

07/03/2007: I’m sick and tired of all the sex and violence in today’s movies. I just want to see the violence!

After all, nothing ruins a perfectly good, bloody, gory kill flick like a steamy sex scene. And people who mix sex with violence are perverts.

And for those who enjoy non-stop violence, the Die Hard movies are perfect. From the first scene to the last yippie kiyay, Bruce Willis never disappoints.

His latest installment–Live Free or Die Hard–is no exception.

This one has a cyber-terror theme, and it is the kind that will leave you scratching your head. Sure, the scenarios are overinflated, as the premise of one person having sufficient knowledge and access and wherewithal to attack that many portions of our national infrastructure is unrealistic–and Willis incorporates more cartoon physics than the previous Die Hard movies–but Live Free or Die Hard will leave you wondering about some very important issues:

  • The futility of your government. As America was slammed with a cyberterror attack, the federal response was realistically woeful. Just like 9/11. Just like Katrina. Fact is, government is good at playing mopup, but don’t expect rapid solutions to profound problems.
  • The reality of evil among our citizenry. None of the attackers were Islammunists. They were not Chinese. They were not Russian. They were not idealogues. The ringleader was a jilted former programmer for the DoD. While the Die Hard scenario is not completely realistic, the evil that would motivate such a one to embark on that course is very real. History bears this out, giving us a litany of despots, kings, caesars, and various assortments of brutal autocrats who slaughtered millions of their own without compunction or regard for human dignity. Anyone who thinks they don’t exist in our government–and even our private sector–is smoking something I want legalized.
  • If one watches this movie closely enough, one gets the impression that women aren’t taken to men who lack testicular fortitude. That dynamic between McClain and his daughter is very realistic, even if the scenario behind it is not.

All said, Live Free or Die Hard is the perfect stress-reliever to watch as you celebrate your Independence Day.

United 93: Hollywood Gets it Right This Time (or 9/11 Meets Apollo 13)

04/28/2006: In a politically-charged climate such as ours, it is easy to understand why making a movie about September 11 would be risky. To be fair, everybody has an opinion about what motivated the hijackers, and the effect of our post-9/11 strategy. Given the recent attempts by others to use the screen to advance political views, there is legitimate cause for concern over the potential for politicizing 9/11.

United 93 avoided that. As David Beamer–father of Flight 93 hero Todd Beamer–opined in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Hollywood got it right this time.

There is no political agenda in this movie.

A few notes about suitability: It would be a good movie for a family to see together. These are matters where healthy discussion is recommended, and the movie is good for that. The language is relatively clean, as the emphasis is not on salty language, but rather capturing the situation. There are a few F-bombs, and I counted one GD-bomb, but other than that it’s clean. There are some bloody scenes, but they are not overdone. This is not The Passion of the Christ or Saving Private Ryan. I do not, however, recommend it for pre-teens (except if the parents see it first). That’s a judgment call.

The movie is very stressful from the five-minute mark onward. One gets a close-up view of the difficulties faced by the air traffic controllers, the FAA, and our military. The directors capture the extreme hardships faced by multiple levels of command in even understanding what was going on, as things were unfolding very rapidly.

Keep in mind that the first plane–American Airlines Flight 11–hit the North tower at about 8:45 AM. At 10:03 AM–a mere 78 minutes later–United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, PA. In between that time, flights hit the South Tower and the Pentagon. While all that is transpiring, there are thousands of planes in the air (each one a blip on the screen for which controllers are responsible for maintaining adequate separation from the other blips), and even the suspect flights were tough to discern as hijackings.

Imagine trying to interpret such ambiguous data under the pressure that the military, FAA, and air traffic controllers were experiencing.

United 93 captures that in spectacular fashion!

Enter the heroes of United Flight 93.

Thanks to cellular (and air-phone) technology, the passengers learned that two jets had hit the World Trade Center and one had hit the Pentagon.

Given that your plane has been hijacked, and knowing that three buildings have been hit, what would you do?

Compounding matters, one of the hijackers is wearing what appears to be a bomb.

Now what would you do?

Had they been resigned to their fate, done nothing, and United 93 hit Capitol Hill or the White House, no one would fault the passengers for staying put. They were under no moral obligation to attack the hijackers.

What they did was morally supererogatory.

In the Army, Soldiers are trained to–if necessary–fall on grenades in order to save the others in their units. (Those who do so realize they are dead anyway, and it’s merely a matter of saving their comrades.) It is not uncommon for soldiers who do that to receive posthumous Medals of Honor, as–training or no training–it is still a gutsy act.

But the passengers of Flight 93 were not military-trained combatants, yet they had already witnessed things that would challenge the resolve of our best Special Forces operators.

They had a decision to make, and they made the best decision in a lose-lose situation.

On a day in which very little went right, the Constitutional Militia of Flight 93 reported for duty, and scored our first victory against Islamist terrorists.

The passengers also scored another major accomplishment: they made future hijackings less likely. Now, anyone who attempts to hijack an American flight will get beat to a pulp. They’ll never make it into the cockpit. If the sky marshals don’t put bullets in their heads, the passengers will take care of business.

Ergo, the heroes of Flight 93 made our skies safer.

United 93 also presents another group of heroes: the air traffic controllers (ATCs).

On a good day, ATCs have one of the hardest jobs in America. Their job is to keep planes from meeting in the air (or on the ground). That involves properly directing aircraft taxiing, taking off, ascending, flying level, approaching the runway, landing, and taxiing. When they get it wrong, lots of people die. And all it takes for that to happen is the slightest lapse in concentration.

From the moment American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North WTC Tower to just past noon, the ATCs safely brought in over 4,000 aircraft without so much as a near-miss.

United 93 is a fitting tribute to the passengers who scored a major victory, and the ATCs who kept their heads and did a remarkable job under the most extraordinary pressure.

Semper Fi to the heroes Flight 93, and hats off to Hollywood.

I often chide them when they get it wrong, but they got it right this time.

Movies that Suck: Jarhead

11/12/2005: If Jarhead is not the worst war movie I’ve seen, it is one of the worst. It may be the first movie attempted regarding Gulf War I, and it is a complete disgrace. It does no justice to our troops, and sheds no light on what our troops accomplished. It is a cynical screed that exemplifies typical Hollywood disdain for our military, our commanders, and our troops.

The movie is not even realistic. The very first scene gives that away. Drill Sergeants stopped physically assaulting recruits a long time ago. The presentation of Scout Sniper training is poorly-done. In the real world, sniper candidates experience an extremely grueling regimen from which about one third graduate. Aside from Recon Marines, Scout Snipers are the best of the Corps.

Even from a cinematic standpoint, it sucks. It is boring. There is no serious plot. All the characters are hypersexed and cynical. Everything is one cliche after another.

Originality? Please!

The major part of the movie was the months-long buildup during which time the soldiers all talked about their girlfriends, cursed each other out, argued with the Sergeants, and maintained a low morale. (The narrator was fixated on masturbation.)

Two Marines received “gifts” from their girlfriends. Swofford–the main character–was dumped. Another received what he thought was a video of Deer Hunter, which was–in fact–a video of his wife having sex with a neighbor. I guess that’s called Hallmark with an attitude. How touching!

While every military deployment has very real setbacks (that’s why we call it “the service”), Jarhead captures only the negative and ignores the positive. As a whole, the movie hardly squares with the accounts of Marines I know who served in Gulf War I.

Jarhead is nothing but a hopelessly profane, cynical, pointless social diatribe that does our Marines a complete disservice.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a zero.

The Great Raid: Someone Finally Tells the Story on Film

08/14/2005: Very few war movies–based on actual events–provide justice to the troops who fought in them or the events they seek to portray. Most Vietnam movies, for example, are a complete disgrace to the troops who fought honorably, many of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice. (Thankfully, We Were Soldiers righted many of those wrongs.)

The Great Raid is another such film, as it pays a long-overdue tribute to two fine groups of American soldiers: survivors of the Bataan Death March, and the soldiers of the 6th Ranger Batallion who pulled off the greatest rescue in military history: the liberation of the Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines.

The Bataan Death March, in and of itself, is one of the most grievous acts of torture in modern history. Forced to march over 60 miles with little food or water, thousands of Allied troops and Filipinos died from the brutality of Japanese soldiers, who often used detainees for bayonet practice. Those who survived the Bataan Death March lived in horrific and savage conditions. Overall, one in three prisoners would die. As the Allies retook the Philippines, the Japanese started executing POWs: they burned 150 Americans to death at the Palawan POW camp.

It is against this backdrop that the Cabanatuan rescue takes place.

The Great Raid is based upon two books: Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides, and The Great Raid on Cabanatuan, by William Breuer. Benjamin Bratt plays Col. Henry Mucci, the commanding officer of the 6th Ranger Batallion. James Franco plays Capt. Robert Prince, the assault commander of the Cabanatuan raid. Bratt does an outstanding job portraying Mucci, a hard-core fitness nut whose compatriots had once described as “Little MacArthur”, pipe and all. Franco also does justice to Capt. Prince, the steely, calm commander whose determination and resilience helped pull off a most improbable rescue mission by a well-trained but inexperienced group of warriors.

John Dahl, the director, did a commendable job by providing the viewer with a sense of the enormous difficulty and complexity of the rescue: from the long march to the camp, to the difficulty of getting into the camp with adequate cover, to being vastly outnumbered, to keeping Japanese tanks at bay, to providing adequate means to get the POWs–most of whom were malnourished and unable to walk–to safety. The enemy was brutal, and the probability of success was very low.

In the end, the Rangers freed over 500 prisoners, with two Rangers killed and two POWs killed. The Filipinos–who also fought valiantly–lost 21 soldiers.

For the most part, the movie sticks to the facts: what you get is a very accurate portrayal of a most harrowing military success. I also credit Dahl for doing justice to the hard work and sacrifice of our troops without gratuitous blood and gore. The violence is well-contextualized, and not overdone. Dahl strikes the perfect balance between Saving Private Ryan and a Disney production.

The only thing I would have changed was this: in reality, Col. Mucci forbade any soldier from participating in the raid if he hadn’t spent some serious time in prayer about it beforehand. This was not shown in the movie, but would have been proper for inclusion. This mission was most urgent, for a cause nothing short of just and righteous. Those words may not be politically-correct today, but are nonetheless very appropriate.

Our POWs–who had suffered nearly unimaginable abuses–were depending on the good faith of America. The 6th Ranger Batallion delivered like no other before or since.

World War II was not a war for my generation, but the accomplishments of that great generation–defeating two brutal, formidible and determined enemies–transcend all generations. The Great Raid captures all of that in one movie. Well-done.