Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Movie Review: Facing the Giants

I've already written an article on so-called Christian movies, movies which of course don't represent all Christians, Christian filmmakers or Christian movies, but are merely one market niche.  As a Christian and a cinephile, that post was important to me.  I was wondering if it is worthwhile at all to explore the topic any further, while also repeating a few points, with a specific and thorough review of a singular movie, Facing the Giants.  This seems like the sort of movie that people either think is terrible or "THE BEST MOVIE EVER."  I partially respect the opinions of people who like this movie, so I will attempt to give it a thorough, but hopefully good-faith, critique rather than arrogant dismissive scorn.

The message of this movie is supposed to be the best part, at least from a Christian perspective.  As a Christian, I feel that the message may be the worst, and certainly most toxic, part of this movie.  The main character goes from having everything go wrong for him to the point of caricature to turning his life over to God and having everything go right for him to the point of caricature.  God gives him a raise, a free car, a child and his team even wins the championship, partially on account of the "fortunate" event of the other team cheating.  As others have noted, that sounds more like Santa Claus.  Christians don't live for Earthly rewards, something this movie seems to forget.  While the main character vows to praise God no matter what, God never ever calls his bluff.  This sort of "prosperity gospel" can drive people away from church when times get tough.

This movie briefly seems to passively endorse in vitro fertilization.  When the main character is asked if he would try in vitro fertilization, he only mentions he can't financially afford it.  As a Catholic Christian, I can not support this.  The Catholic Church opposes in vitro fertilization because it disassociates procreation from the conjugal act.  A child is an expression of the love of the mother and the father and is not meant to be cultivated in a petri dish.  As a second, and even more important, point, in vitro fertilization generally entails creating excess embryos that are discarded.  In strict moral terms, they may as well have passively endorsed abortion.  Lastly, the collection of a sperm sample generally involves masturbation, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church states is a "gravely disordered action."  It goes on to state, "'The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.' For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of 'the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.'"  Now I respect that the makers of this movie are not Catholic, but for a movie that otherwise seems to be trying so hard to be an inoffensive, safe, nondenominational Christian movie, I was shocked.  They obviously did this by accident, but it does genuinely reflect how they feel about IVF and their ignorance of, or general disinterest in reaching, devout Catholics.  Why even mention it?  As a side note, just because a character in a movie does something bad, does not necessarily mean the movie's ultimate message is an endorsement of said thing, but this movie is not that nuanced.

Now on to the writing.  What can I say about this movie that isn't on the surface?  Just about nothing.  All the story beats beat us over the head.  EVERYTHING is obvious.  Good storytelling leaves the message in the subtext and demonstrates truth through action, not explicitly saying everything.  This movie is too on the nose.  Also, all the issues and story arcs are these characters have are much too neatly wrapped up.  Lastly, as someone who has played seven seasons of football, biblical metaphors are no replacement for learning the practicals of your position, such as how to actually kick a football down the middle.  Some people will love the writing in this movie, but mainly because they are really hungry to see their worldview affirmed on a screen, or perhaps even more so because they want to see positive portrayals of themselves on screen.  This is pandering.  This lack of nuance may show the lack of imagination and ability to write nuance, or an insulting condescension or fear that the audience won't get it.  As I said in my broad article on so-called Christian movies, aesthetics matter because why else are you even using a medium?  Why package the Gospel message in a narrative and a movie if those forms aren't contributing anything?  A message is not enough.

The acting, of course, is also terrible.  Nearly everyone is bland and wooden.  I have to especially call out the lead actor, Alex Kendrick, as Grant Taylor.  He spends the whole movie pouting and painfully mugging for the camera.  It made me wonder if the director and producers were having discussions about replacing him as the lead similar to the discussions in the movie about replacing his character as the football coach.  Since most of the movie is a sermon, it makes sense that the acting would feel rote.

There are a few, brief positives about this movie.  Shannen Fields as Brooke Taylor has a relatively strong performance and brings a little gravitas to the movie.  Alex Kendrick seems largely incapable of having chemistry with another actor so they are a little weaker as a couple.  I appreciated her down to Earth struggles with the pregnancy and could probably count on one hand the number of movies that deal with such subject matter.  At the end when she is with her second child, that's a fun bonus payoff.  I suppose it's nice to see a movie with a Christian message, although it's a rather distorted and problematic at times, and I've seen the Gospel in much better packaging many other times.  The scene of the suicide crawl, a popular clip on YouTube, is powerful because it works with visuals and allows the movie to have a thin layer of subtext for five seconds.  The football scenes are okay, but only because they are blatantly biting, both in visual aesthetics and even dialogue, from my favorite sports movie of all time.  The production values for the movie on the whole are adequate, but that's not a compliment, just an observation that the movie fulfilled the bare-minimum expectations that I would bring to any movie.

On the whole, this movie is awful, both in its messaging and in its "artistic" qualities.  I'd love to see the Christian film industry improve, but even more so, I'd like to see audiences realize they have alternative options.

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