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.
⁴ 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.