Category Archives: Movies

“42”: First Good Christian Movie of 2013

Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1947
Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1947

“42” is the first very good, but not quite great, movie of 2013.

“42” is also the first good baseball movie in a couple of years. (“Moneyball” was pretty good in 2011, but “42” is better.) “42” is also the first good Christian movie of 2013.

In other words, go see “42.”

“42” tells the true story of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball in the modern era, when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. After a year with the Montreal farm club, Robinson took the field with the Dodgers in 1947.

That’s just long enough ago to be “an earlier time” for most of us. In the 21st century, it is nearly impossible to fathom the response our nation had, just 66 years ago, to a black man stepping onto the baseball field with white players.

It made headlines across the country. Some of Robinson’s own teammates signed a petition stating their refusal to play with him. Some opposing teams threatened to forfeit their games.

Robinson and his family received death threats. When he took to the field, many in the stands booed. When he was at bat, pitchers aimed for his head. When he was on the field, base runners spiked his legs. Opposing managers and players taunted him publicly with vicious epithets.

Robinson, just 28 years old, endured it all. He took the sins of a nation upon his young shoulders without lashing out or fighting back.

Martin Luther King was 18 years old that year. Just seven years later, in 1955, King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks is famous for bravely refusing to move to the back of the bus, sparking that boycott. But Parks wasn’t the first to demonstrate such courage. In 1944, two years before being signed by the Dodgers, Jackie Robinson, an Army soldier, refused to give up his seat on an Army bus at Fort Hood, Texas. He was brought under court-martial and acquitted.

I am a white man, but I owe a debt of thanks to Jackie Robinson for making America a better nation. I certainly have no desire to live in a country where African Americans or people of any race are degraded for their skin color or deprived of liberty or respect. Although racism certainly still exists, I am thankful for how far our nation has come, and thankful to Robinson and King for leading the way.

“42” not only tells the story of Robinson, but of Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who courageously defied the color line by signing Robinson to his team. Rickey is played by Harrison Ford, in one of the best performances of his career.

Branch Rickey was “a dedicated, Bible-loving Christian,” according to his biographer. Of all the great players in the Negro Leagues, Rickey chose Robinson partly because Robinson was a fellow Christian. Like Rickey, Robinson’s mother was a devout Methodist, and Robinson himself taught Sunday School.

When Rickey challenged Robinson to become major league baseball’s first black player, he warned Robinson that he would be subjected to hatred and threats of violence, to which he would have no choice but to follow Christ’s admonition to turn the other cheek, to be someone “with guts enough not to fight back.”

If Robinson had attempted to fight racism with his fists, he could never have beat all the ignorance and hatred out of an entire nation. But by standing there, by taking it, by turning the other cheek, by rising above, by proving that he was far the better man than those who derided him, Robinson forced the entire nation to take sides — either with the brave young man standing proudly on the field alone, or with the ignorant, hate-filled racists in the bleachers.

The one shortcoming of “42,” and it is a big one, is that although the movie highlights Rickey’s faith and love for the Scriptures, it fails to shine the same spotlight on Robinson’s faith. Rickey was a great man, but the title of this movie is “42.” That’s the number that Robinson wore as he stood defiantly on the ballfield as thousands surrounding him poured out their venom. “42” is a good movie that could have been great if it had done more to reveal Robinson’s inner motivations, especially the faith that empowered him.

Jackie Robinson was indeed a Christian, who ended each day on his knees in prayer, especially during the anguish of 1947. In one of the few times the movie does give a glimpse of Robinson’s faith, he tells his wife, Rachel, that he won’t give up.

“I won’t,” Robinson said. “God built me to last.”

In Oklahoma City, it is rare for a theater audience to applaud a movie. I am pleased to say that in my neighborhood last Saturday, the Jackie Robinson story, as told in “42,” received an ovation from my fellow theater-goers. I recommend it highly.


Golden Compass: “B” Rating At Best

Because of the controversy among evangelicals regarding the recently released movie, The Golden Compass, and the underlying trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman upon which the movie is based, it seemed logical to see it and review it. As it turns out, the controversy was unnecessary. Golden Compass gets a “B” rating at best, and all the talk may have given the film more credibility than it deserves.

In World Magazine, December 8 issue, Janie Cheaney reported that New Line Cinema, the studio that produced The Lord of the Rings movies, spent $250 million to bring Golden Compass to the screen. I doubt the movie will ever earn that, nor will it be remembered for long, like The Lord of the Rings movies.

Golden Compass starts with an impossible task: how to be a children’s movie with a PG13 rating. It’s next impossible task: how to use the talents of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee and others in a meaningful way without giving them enough, or even any, meaningful screen time. Why do movie makers not understand the process by which an audience begins to empathize with a character? The movie’s third and final impossible task: how to tell a complex story, which originated in a 500-page novel, without enough dialog in 118 minutes.

Unlike the Harry Potter movies, Golden Compass must deal with several unfamiliar story ideas before the story gets in the way. Harry Potter dealt with magic, sorcerers and witches, things we all have some fictional experience interpreting. But the “parallel universe” theme of Golden Compass is a very slender thread in the science fiction genre (and equally a minor part of quantum physics). We were expected as an audience to meet, understand, and then empathize with an entirely new universe in less than two hours. As Lord of the Rings demonstrated, it takes longer.

Thus, Golden Compass has received a mediocre public reception. New Line may not be able to raise the money to bring a sequel to the screen, if that financing is dependent upon success of the first installment. This movie will not boost Pullman’s book sales, if that was the fear of some evangelicals.

The movie was imaginative, with one glaring exception. Sam Elliott appeared to be playing the same character in Golden Compass that he played in Ghost Rider. It appeared he was even wearing the same costume and using the same guns. Elliott’s character also appeared to be about equally sympathetic to the lead character in each movie, such that I had to look twice to see whether Dakota Blue Richards had morphed into Nicholas Cage.


The Zeitgeist Claim

I was invited by an old friend to review a part of the Zeitgeist movie and answer some questions about it. I ended up watching the whole thing, largely because I kept waiting for it to all make sense, for all the dots to be connected, and for the big answers or big solutions to be announced.

I was disappointed.

The idea of this particular format of presentation is not only not new, it even existed pre-internet. When I was in high school in the 1970s, a televised history class one day presented a slide show in time and in beat to Iron Butterfly’s unforgettable In-A-Gadda–Da-Vida (“In the Garden of Eden,” some say), which by 1972 was an oldie. The entire Oklahoma City public school system saw this televised presentation.

Likewise, the conceptual framework of the Zeitgeist movie is not a revelation but a rehash of most of the more interesting conspiracy theories. The idea that people should not lend unthinking acquiescence to what they are told by government or the media is certainly worthy. But, a bunch of alternative history or alternative reality theories that are no more substantiated, and usually less so, is not likely to create an environment of critical thinking.

Indeed, there is a large scale abandonment of critical thinking training proceeding at breakneck speed in America. That is why debate squads are now rare in high schools and colleges, but numerous members (fifty at one local high school has been recently reported) of every faculty have special sports coaching contracts. Team sports teach many good things, but critical thinking is not one of them.

The Zeitgeist movie begins with the assertion that religion is a fraud and that if the intelligent reviewer will but do the indepth research the authors of Zeitgeist have done, they will reach the same contrarian result. Of course, in the movie itself, the poor narration and even grammatical errors notwithstanding, only conclusions are presented. No substantiating documents or evidence are presented. Otherwise, the movie’s sweep through thousands of years of history could not be accomplished in two hours.

The Zeitgeist authors are clearly trying to repackage the “international Jewish bankers control the world” conspiracy theory, without using the word “Jewish,” and graft it onto the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, World War I and World War II, federal income taxation and national banking systems as progenitors of economic slavery. Oh, and if you research any of these issues and reach a different conclusion, the authors of the movie are concerned that you may have reviewed “biased sources” or “very general” sources.

Oh, lest I forget, my friend asked me to consider the Zeitgeist claim at the beginning of the film that there have been many “God the son” stories in the religions of antiquity such that the claims about Jesus are simply borrowed from those earlier religious claims. This is not a new argument. It has been made many times. The first time I saw it was in Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was published in the 1700s (Gibbon died in 1794). Gibbon’s theory, as I recall it, was that because the Gospels seemed to track an earlier religious claim, possibly Mithraism, the Gospels were accepted by Roman soldiers, eventually leading to the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion of Rome. However, as I recall, Mithraism was not much of a competitor for Christianity because Mithraism only allowed males into the sect, i.e., it was not family friendly, and was only one of many “pagan” beliefs that migrated to Rome during that era. The parallels in the stories of Mithra and Jesus that scholars could agree upon were not terribly compelling or even numerous, but the Zeitgeist movie claims otherwise.

Nativity Story Draws Thumbs-Up Reviews

Mary and Joseph

The Nativity Story, which tells the story of Mary and Joseph and by all accounts is faithful to the Biblical narrative, is getting mixed reviews. The movie (rated PG) opened on Friday and ranked fourth at the box office, earning $8 million in its first weekend. That’s not bad, particularly as competition heats up for holiday movie-goers.

Among those giving Nativity thumbs-up reviews are the Chicago Tribune, Christianity Today, Hollywood Reporter, Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, and Denver Post.

I confess that when I see ads for a Bible-based or Christian-oriented film, I am usually less than enthused, because so many such movies are so poorly written, acted and produced. There are numerous exceptions (e.g., Chariots of Fire, The Apostle, Tender Mercies, Dead Man Walking, A Man for All Seasons, and The Passion of the Christ). But the list is much longer of films that suggest that the word “Christian” is synonymous with amateurish, simplistic, and naïve.

However, maybe The Nativity Story is better than that. It stars 16-year-old New Zealander Keisha Castle-Hughes, who earned an Oscar nomination for her outstanding work in Whale Rider. It is directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who directed Thirteen, another excellent (although radically different) film about a troubled teenage girl.

Chicago Tribune reviewer Bill Zwecker says “while the look, feel and direction [of Nativity]…are all strong, it is the superb casting choices that ultimately make this such a wonderful film.” He describes Castle-Hughes as an “amazing young actress” who is “luminous as Mary.” The screenplay provides a sometimes “grittier, uncomfortable version” of the story, which “adds even more heft to this special film.”

Less impressed is Los Angeles Times reviewer Kenneth Turan, who describes the film as “a Story told with too much naiveté.” The screenplay has “painfully sincere dialogue” and “gee-wilikers writing.” Turan describes one moment that sounds like just the kind of cheesiness that I have grown to expect and disdain in Bible films:

When Jesus is finally born, the star the wise men have been following illuminates the manger like a massive searchlight at a big studio premiere. When Hollywood faces off against religion, you don’t even have to ask which force will come out on top.

Chuck Colson says The Nativity Story is the first Bible movie released by a major Hollywood studio since The Ten Commandments 50 years ago (the films listed above and the others you are thinking of were independent productions). He writes:

If you don’t want to wait another fifty years, then take your family, friends, and neighbors to see this film. … Revisiting Bethlehem in this way will remind us, as director Hardwicke says, of the ‘overwhelming notion that God chose this manner of sending His Son. . . . God did not go to a king. He did not go to a palace. He went to humanity.'”

I find myself thinking that if Nativity rises above the usual Christian schlock, as it apparently does, we Christians should support the film, to send a message to Hollywood that we would like to see more good movies with Bible-based themes. Guess I’ll go next weekend.