Rightwing Film Geek

Here’s pat

FIREPROOF (Alex Kendrick, USA, 2008) — 4

I couldn’t even bring myself to see the Kendrick brothers’ previous film FACING THE GIANTS,¹ which I was reliably told had the football-coach main character get on his knees and accept Jesus Christ as his Savior in a field. After which, his football team becomes champions and he gets a new red truck, which is not only risible but pernicious — religion as a means to worldly success.² Methodism and Buddhism, e.g., are incomplete or mistaken; but the Prosperity Gospel Heresy is wicked.

FIREPROOF avoids the Prosperity Gospel Heresy because it centers on a dying marriage, which saved by a mid-movie religious conversion. Unlike high-school football, marriage is a Godly institution, the success of which matters and has something to do with one’s religious/moral qualities. FIREPROOF has its heart in the right place, has entertaining parts, and is clearly better than (my received notion of) FACING THE GIANTS. It isn’t an awful movie, and it doesn’t deserve the F-grades or the sort of toxic hatred that you can see in the comment fields (or anywhere else secular liberals are gathered).³ I also acknowledge it had the value of being in the small Georgia city, Albany, where I lived for two years, which gives you a certain level of interest in spotting locations and details (e.g., I am 90 percent sure I know what restaurant that lead art is from). Still, it is more earnest, pat and “messagey” than Cynical Gen-X Catholic Moi likes. Maybe it would look better if it had been shown on the Hallmark or Lifetime channels as a movie-of-the-week. And its fundamental dramatic weakness suggests something about contemporary Christian works of art that lies in the very theology of Protestantism. (I swear … the one Amy Grant song I have just popped up on iTunes.)

Kirk Cameron plays a fireman who agrees early on during a bitter fight with his wife (Erin Bethea) to a divorce — he’s diffident and uncaring, she says; she gives him no respect, he says. Cameron’s father (Harris Malcolm) advises against the divorce and persuades Cameron to try the “Love Dare,” a do-1-thing-and-read-1-Bible-verse-every-day-for-40-days program. The portrayal of a marriage’s disintegration and the initial difficulty putting it back together is the strongest part of FIREPROOF. Scott Tobias protests that there’s little at stake in this marriage — “has there ever been a blander conflict” — and that’s not wrong as an observation about the film, but that’s actually a strength. Most marriage breakups are of the water-wearing-down-the-rock variety of the couple just falling out of love than the dynamite-exploding-a-rock kinds of things (which is admittedly more dramatic). FIREPROOF not only understands that, but also understands that the 40-day thing is not going to work for a long time, partly because at least at the start, it will be being done from duty rather than love, and face a suspicious audience (“what’s he trying to pull”).

But there’s no getting around the fact that the acting, writing and direction in FIREPROOF range from well-observed in a low-key way to a veritable Western Omelette of well-egged cheesy haminess. Some of the best moments of the film don’t have anything to do with the religious messages: the wife’s girlfriend circle (an edited conversation is so believable it transcends the on-the-noseness of the edits) and the dorm hijinks among the firemen (particularly, I will be vague, a mirror scene) are quite funny. The firefighting action scenes are tense and not overdone. There’s a running gag involving the next-door neighbor that is sit-commy, yes, but really worked because they were about the only moments of dry understatement in a universe of well-underlined points. Cameron gives easily the best performance in either of the two films I saw Monday night (waddya know … being a professional actor actually means you can act better than people who are not). But at the other end, some of the one-scene roles are simply unwatchable, like (first to come to mind) the elderly woman who talks to the wife over lunch at the hospital: you can see community-theater pride in the perfect recitation of the lines. You can’t really blame e.g., Harris Malcolm for his performance as the born-again father. He does what one can with the dialogue he is given (which never rises above the level of “illustrations for one of those John Ankerberg’s late-night TBN infomercials I loved when I lived with three evangelical college friends). I was gagging during a key shot as the camera moved a certain way toward a cross while Malcolm walked a certain way for no reason but to get into position and time his spoken lines to produce a well-composed “message shot” worthy of an Ankerberg TV commercial. It looks posed in the same way the still at the top of this review.

As earnest message movies go, FIREPROOF is watchable and there is nothing cynical about its lack of cynicism, and no guile in its guileless turn to having the 40-day program only start working when Cameron undergoes a conversion (one he’s properly resistant to for the movie’s first two-thirds). But at the end of the day, I just have to wonder if evangelical soteriology doesn’t mold the mind in ways fundamentally inimical to drama. Imagine that you believe (and this Catholic, at least, can only imagine it) that your life is radically divided into “Before Christ” and “After Christ,” with your accepting Christ being a single, decisive act that takes place on a definable day that one can remember, mark and celebrate as the day you were saved, in the same way that one can remember, mark and celebrate the day you were married or the day you were born. If this is your understanding of the universe (I freely admit I’m grossly oversimplifying), then your scripts will be at least vulnerable to overdetermined, thesis-driven, on-a-dime plotting, and to a pat … patness. Your religion affects your imagination, defines its “believable” and its “normal” — how you see everything, in other words, not just your creedal beliefs about the explicit doctrines.

Whatever may be said about this within its proper realm — the understanding of the supernatural act of salvation — drama about human beings simply doesn’t work that way because drama relies on men not being gods, being radically imperfect, and on our consciousness of both these other facts.

Let me just take one thread as an example — one of the reasons the marriage is in trouble is that Cameron has a problem with internet porn. His wife is understandably jealous and properly angry. After this has been established, a “come hither” popup appears on the screen while Cameron is looking at pictures of boats (his relatively-licit material fetish). After a few seconds of walking around the room, Cameron pulls the computer and the monitor out into his yard, takes out the baseball bat, and gets medieval on its ass. Fair enough … and actually believable on its own terms.⁴ But … then what. Religious devotion is not incompatible with porn struggling, especially if it be a true addiction (and given the loose understandings of that noun currently regnant, it certainly is). But do we get any indication after the computer gets smashed of backsliding, of recovery from the wounds of sin being a process, of things being beyond immediate “cure” (or in Aquinas’s terms “concupiscence blinding the intellect”)? A real drama would have at least one scene later on of Cameron sneaking into a porn shop. But not here. “Before Christ, I was damned; After Christ, I am saved” is at least plausible; “Before Christ, I was addicted to porn; After Christ, I was not” is not. It’s not so much “false” as … well, I keep coming back to this word … “pat.”
————————————
¹ Alex directs; Stephen and Alex co-write. Both are ministers at Albany’s Sherwood Baptist Church.
² If I am wrong about these basic plot points on FACING THE GIANTS, I will accept correction.
³ It should go without saying that Scott’s review is wrongheaded but he is in no way responsible for the vileness and hatred in the combox.
When I was a college journalist, I did a profile of a heavy-metal ministry being run couple of students at the Baptist Student Center, and one of them described to me smashing his secular- (and sometimes Satanic-)record collection, which was worth close to $2,000 in 1988 money, upon his conversion.

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October 16, 2008 - Posted by | Alex Kendrick, Conservative films, Protestantism, Religion in movies, Scott Tobias

12 Comments »

  1. “Before Christ, I was addicted to porn; After Christ, I was not” is not [plausible].

    I’m not sure the scene, at least as you describe it, is saying this. As an evangelical, I often “testimonies” of people making claims like this one — i.e. have previously engaged in behavior that is typically considered addictive or at least compulsive and then having no desire to engage in such behavior again (besides that they were unlikely to be true, these stories had the negative effect of making me frequently question my salvation since I didn’t have this kind of mastery over sinful desires).

    But the response of Cameron’s character seems to suggest that he knows porn is still a temptation and that he would rather go without his computer than succumb to it again (as Christopher West says, “Is it better to gain the whole Internet and lose one’s soul?).

    I’m not suggesting that it couldn’t have been better done or that the story wouldn’t have been better if he had actually had a post-conversion lapse. Just that the scene doesn’t seem to imply that Cameron is supposed to have been instantly cured of his addiction at the moment of conversion.

    Having not seen the movie or at least the scene in question, I may be missing

    Comment by Mark Adams | October 16, 2008 | Reply

  2. Okay, the question must be asked: Which Amy Grant song?

    Comment by Peter T Chattaway | October 16, 2008 | Reply

  3. Having not seen the movie or at least the scene in question, I may be missing

    … the end of that thought?

    OK … cheap shot over.

    So … ahem … I was unclear myself, markbud. I don’t have any problem at all with the computer-smashing scene in isolation and I footnoted a similar experience that I know of.

    My problem was entirely what you suspected about post-conversion lapsing, and I added a couple of phrases in italics to make my meaning clearer. I think that lack of any later lapse or even a hint thereat DOES at-least-imply that conversion brought about an instant or certainly permanent cure. Conversion simply is not a dime upon which human habits turn. St. Paul practically tells us otherwise, saying God refused to remove the thorn from his flesh.

    Comment by vjmorton | October 16, 2008 | Reply

  4. Peter:

    “Find A Way.”

    Comment by vjmorton | October 16, 2008 | Reply

  5. I actually like Amy Grant.

    Comment by Adam Villani | October 17, 2008 | Reply

  6. I’ve not seen Fireproof yet, but have been planning to in a “I’ll watch it sometime in the next year, but it’s not a see-or-die need, really” sort of way. So, I will have more collected thoughts concerning Fireproof after I’ve seen it. Thank you for the great review! I agree with you on a lot of points.

    However, I would encourage you to at least give Facing the Giants a chance. It’s not the best film ever made, and there are moments that are pat and resolved too quickly, but there is not a “conversion in a field” scene. The movie starts with a Christian couple, who are struggling with the fact that everything in their life is going wrong. Even if everything working out isn’t as realistic as normal life usually is, it’s a least a little better than a conversion; it’s more of a “giving up” scene. Anyway. :) My two cents.

    Comment by Audrey | October 18, 2008 | Reply

  7. “A real drama would have at least one scene later on of Cameron sneaking into a porn shop.”

    And also, a scene wherein the guy’s kid says to his mom, “Hey, ma. What happened to the computer? I need to use it for my homework.” His mom replies, “Honey, it was offending Daddy, so he plucked it out.” The boy shakes his head and says, “Why didn’t he just install Firefox?”

    Comment by Russ | October 20, 2008 | Reply

  8. you seem to have a real issue with “secular liberals.”

    In 50 words or less, can you explain exactly what you find so offensive about them?

    I am truly curious.

    Comment by don | January 22, 2009 | Reply

  9. If you’re using psychobabble lingo like “you seem to have a real issue” and consider “Really?” an argument, I frankly doubt how “truly curious” you are.

    (I’ll prescind the comment at my use of “all-heterosexual gay panic” cuz I dont know whether you’ve seen HAPPY GO-LUCKY. I was referring to a character’s reaction to a developing crush on a woman he sees as representing everything wrong with the world. If you’d seen the actor and scenes in question, I think what I meant would have been perfectly clear. If not, I think my capsule was clear if allusive, but I’m willing to clarify some things.)

    Comment by vjmorton | January 22, 2009 | Reply

  10. But if you want a quick answer, here are exactly 50 words on how secular liberals are effing up the world and the U.S.:

    Abortion; cloning; self-righteousness; 60s-worship; sexual immorality in all forms; multiculturalism; me-ism; perspectivism and relativism; consent uber alles; demystifying and disenchanting everything; international wimpery; functional pacifism; cosmopolitanism; bohemianism; Christophobia; xenophilia; materialism in all forms; cultural snobbery internally and cultural relativism externally; born-yesterdayism; hatred of church and family; eternal damnation for many.

    Obviously, each of these terms between semicolons is worthy of extended discussion (I updated this comment a bit also). And I’m describing an ideal-type. Probably no particular secular-liberal fits all the descriptors perfectly, or even all of them at all; some of them are philosophical matters that your ordinary Obama voter (or any other voter frankly) doesn’t even think about. But that’s the whole point of an ideology — it defines and makes sense of the world before you even self-consciously “think” about it. Or in one phrase: secular-liberals get wrong everything important about the world.

    Comment by vjmorton | January 22, 2009 | Reply

  11. I just love the fact that there’s a guy who can’t seem to figure out why someone who named their blog “Rightwing Film Geek” would have a few ideological issues with your average secular liberal.

    Comment by Steve C. | January 25, 2009 | Reply

  12. I agree that teaching prosperity-through-salvation is a heresy, but that is not at all what Facing the Giants is suggesting. If you will watch the movie you will see that the coach already has a strong faith in Christ, but is struggling with several areas of his life (which, if anything, illustrates that Christians do face trials.) The whole message of the movie is that we should praise and trust in God even through the trials of life when things seem to be falling in around us (Phil. 4:11-13) The coach tries to teach his players that football in itself doesn’t matter to God except in the fact that He has allowed them to play and can use them in their position as athletes and role models (and how they react to both victory and defeat) to be a Christian example.
    As far as the way things work out in the movie – the red truck was given to him by the father of one of the players, whose relationship with his son was reconciled because of the coach’s influence in the boy’s life. It’s an example of how Christians should live out 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 (and I have experienced it first hand in my life on both ends – giving and receiving abundantly beyond anything I could expect.) As in the story, I was also blessed with two sons when, after years of not getting pregnant, I finally gave it over to the Lord and accepted that His will may not be for me to have children. At the end the team does win the state championship despite the odds being stacked against them, and it is a “feel-good” movie. But the overall message of the movie is to walk through every circumstance of life in faith and thanksgiving to God (Col. 2:6-7), which the coach determines to do BEFORE receiving all of God’s blessings in his life.
    At the end many things do work out for him, but it’s not like he’s all of a sudden rich or living in some huge house (he gets a $6000 raise from $24,000 mid way through after the team starts winning and the parents get behind his coaching abilities.) It sends a message about how God will be glorified when He provides for needs in our life if we have been living to glorify Him all along (1 Peter 4:10-11).

    Comment by Ashley | May 11, 2009 | Reply


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