Machine Gun Preacher (Forster, 2011)

Once upon a time in American cinema, a character from the Middle East was likely to be the villain of the story. Upon other times, homosexual characters were portrayed as condemning caricatures. But today, if we meet a character who professes Christian faith, it’s a safe bet to assume he’ll be exposed as a charlatan, a hypocrite, a monster, … or, at best, a pest. Priests and preachers? They’re the worst of all.

“Tolerance!”—that’s the name of today’s mandatory American religion. And there’s only one out-of-context Scripture in its liturgy: “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Nevertheless, there’s always an exception. The mob will not be satisfied if they don’t have someone to blame for their own discomfort. And so American storytellers and artists continue to flaunt ignorance and prejudice, happy to serve up examples of the Scapegoat of the Age.

To be fair, caricatures have their inspirations. A few terrorists have been known to come from the Middle East. From time to time, we learn that it’s possible to find villainy in the hearts of gays… or Christians. While the vast majority of priests seem to be gentle, compassionate souls whose hearts are broken at news of a scandal, we cannot deny that the occasional crook dons those humble robes. And what’s this? Do you sense a change in the weather? More and more new movies are hanging a target sign on bankers. (See Tower Heist.)

Nevertheless, crowds will still gather for the opportunity to hate straw-man Christians and throw them to the lions. This year, we’ve had Salvation Boulevard already, and here comes Red State.

Now, I’m not calling for filmmakers to fight anti-Christian prejudice with Christian propaganda. Movies that airbrush Christians into blameless heroes are as bad or worse as their opposite. But I was hopeful that Marc Forster’s new film Machine Gun Preacher might offer a thoughtful alternative to the parade of pathetic Christian straw men being paraded through cineplexes. The trailer and pre-relase hype promised an inspiring film about a man whose life was transformed by an encounter with Christ. And to lure the audience that made The Passion of the Christ a hit, marketers targeted Christian moviegoers.

The Christian-friendly poster.

And God be praised: I’m relieved to report that the movie doesn’t make a mockery of Christians, or anybody else.

But then again, it doesn’t show much evidence of understanding them, or comprehending anything about the Jesus that inspires them.

Forster’s film does better at portraying a preacher than most “Christian movies” do at portraying people who don’t believe in God; at least Forster treats his central character, Sam Childers, as a complicated human being. But the movie, like its Christian hero, is disappointing, and even frustrating, in all kinds of ways.

As it opens, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is released from prison like John Belushi in The Blues Brothers. And, like Belushi, he’s not in any mood to accept any assignments from God. Not yet.

Then, as if striving to convince viewers that this isn’t going to be a squeaky clean “Christian movie,” Forster pours all kinds of “gritty” material into the opening sequences. Childers is flagrantly foul-mouthed, violent, and he has hot sex with Lynn, his ex-stripper wife (Michelle Monaghan), in his car just moments after his release. As the film quickly earns its R-rating, churchgoers who responded to the film’s Christian-specific marketing campaign may stagger toward the exits.

But lo, Lynn has found Jesus!

This news doesn’t please Childers. He commands her to go back to stripping, and then throws himself back into his old thieving, heroin-shooting, wife-abusing ways. As you might expect, he’s throwing himself off a cliff for the rock-bottom belly flop that will trigger the conversion experience promised by the film’s title. Before you know it, Lynn is dragging his grumbling ass to church.

The “Mission from God” comes hard on the heels of his conversion. Swinging to the opposite extreme, Childers never seems to find any kind of balance. He goes from reckless, thoughtless self-destruction to reckless, thoughtless missionary work. Leaving behind his wife, his children, and his bewildered junkie pal (Michael Shannon, making the most of very little), he’s off to help build an orphanage for those poor, vulnerable Africans in the Sudan.

It’s here that Forster starts knocking down opportunities for thoughtful, challenging storytelling. Imagine a remake of The Mission that eliminates the Jeremy Irons character and replaces Robert De Niro with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and you’ll get the idea.

Machine Gun Preacher finds its raison-d’être when shootouts break out between Childers and the gangs of barbarians who close in on an African orphanage. I held on, anticipating an exploration of obvious questions: Should followers of Christ carry heavy artillery? Should missionaries wage war against barbarians while their families suffer from their absence at home?

But I left the theatre wanting. Wanting a lot, actually.

We’re given surprisingly little food for thought when it comes to the question of the complicated tensions between Christian faith and violence. At one point, we see an aid worker who questions Childers’ ethics, but then a villain strikes her, silencing both her attempt at diplomacy and the film’s investigation of ethical questions. For all of their bluster, these filmmakers just don’t have the guts to confront such challenges. They probably don’t want to offend audiences that came to see a handsome white hero protect poor black children… the movie that the poster promised.

The shopping mall poster.

To his credit, Forster does a decent job creating a persuasive look at life in the Sudan. And I enjoyed the montage of clips that run through the end credits, which deliver the real Sam Childers, his family, and glimpses of his workplace. (Oh, if only Gerard Butler had grown out his facial hair to resemble that really impressive mustache of the real Childers, this film would have been much more interesting to watch!)

But his treatment of the force that changed Childers from criminal to Christian isn’t very useful. We’re given scenes of a church service and a baptism, but we don’t get into the Scriptures that we see Childers reading, nor is the Jesus that Childers’ worships given much consideration. What does faith really mean in Childers’ life, when it throws him into a panic that suggests he thinks it’s up to him to save the world? We see him staring at an open Bible, but most of the time we see him charging aggressively about and waving a gun, which raises all kinds of questions that the movie shows no interest in addressing.

Childers is clearly moved by the sight of vulnerable, helpless Africans. But does the film care to move us with the reality of their desperate plight? Does it echo the important question “Who is my neighbor?” To an extent, I suppose. But if the filmmakers wanted us to care about Sudan, they might have thought to help us get to know  some characters there. Instead, we just see familiar images of Africans being harmed and feeling desperate. The film is so focused on Childers, we don’t learn more than a sound-bite summary about the conflicts in Sudan. And when it comes to the African characters, few moviegoers will remember more than a couple of first names.

It’s a common problem in commercial American films: the screenwriter becomes so interested in the main character that everything becomes about making that character compelling. As a result the rest of the characters don’t seem to have real lives except in how they react to, or are involved with, or trouble the hero. Childers’ family seems to live lives of worrying about him, arguing with him, pleading with him, or beaming at his transformation.

This only enhances and inflates a character that already appears to be fueled by steroids.

Machine Gun Preacher works far better as a movie about Gerard Butler’s testosterone-fueled screen presence than as a movie about a crisis and how we respond to it. It works so hard to convince us of Childers’ brawny masculinity that it becomes unintentionally amusing. As portrayed by Butler, Childers is so busy flexing his “guns” that you half-expect him to march out into a barrage of gunfire and tear the enemy apart with his bare hands. He’s always aggressive, brusque, sweaty, and feverish. Even in his “quieter” moments he’s swinging an axe… or something.

So, while Forster admirably avoids the fashionable caricature of Christian community, his title character cannot be listed with the few respectable big-screen Christian characters. This is not a picture of Christ doing a redemptive work in a man’s head and heart. Rather, it’s a portrait of a man whose developing sense of compassion is repeatedly fractured by impatience and aggression. I see very little comprehension in the man—or rather, in his big-screen avatar—that he has really meditated on the message and the nature of the Jesus he professes.

When he’s shouting his sermons at his hometown church, and the congregants fail to applaud him for his violent outrage, are we supposed to judge them as hard-hearted or fearful? I hope not. Is this film a call for missionaries who carry a Bible in one hand and an AK-47 in the other? God forbid.

And what about Childers’ family? The film seems to want us to forgive the fact that this character has all but forgotten the wife who needs her husband, and the kids who need their father. (Their lives remain in a state of suspension as he goes on fulfilling this mission from God.)

This could have been a fascinating character study of a man pulled to pieces by conflicting forces. The details presented in the film suggest that the material was there, available to an observant storyteller. Does Forster want us to view Childers with increasing concern, worried that he has just reshaped his destructive energy into a new shape? I don’t think the filmmakers know for certain whether they’re giving us a hero’s story or a portrait of a lost and dangerous man.

Oh well, it could have been worse. This could have been a Mel Gibson movie.

 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NXOAIBTR6TMBOKGL4IZ3S7SYQU Linda

    If you wanted to watch a fairytale christian movie, maybe you should have watched Courageous.  I think you could have condensed your review in one sentence with I didn’t like this movie instead of making me read the novel you just wrote. Everyone’s salvation experience is different…one is not better than the other.  Sam is an unique individual as each  apostle was, not perfect, flawed, but forgiven.  This movie could reach people that are flawed that would never enter a church because of the judgemental attitudes of most.  By such a critical view of yours, many may not see it and the children in Sudan with not get the financial help needed by the proceeds of this movie.  I am a Christian bought by the blood of Jesus, nothing else needs to be said.    I am truly disappointed by your review.  What an opportunity you missed. .. 

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      I’ll do my best to sort through your response here, Linda.

      “If you wanted to watch a fairytale christian movie, maybe
      you should have watched Courageous.”

       

      Actually, I dislike “fairytale Christian movies.” I think they tend to be deceitful. And I said that in this very review: I am certainly not calling for
      Christian propaganda. But you apparently didn’t notice that.

       

      “I think you could have condensed your review in one
      sentence with I didn’t like this movie instead of making me read the novel you
      just wrote.”

       

      First of all, I didn’t make you read anything. If someone forced
      you to read this, I think you should report that to the appropriate authorities.

       

      Secondly, I am a film critic. My job is not to criticize the
      inspiration for a film, but to examine and critique how a film is made. It’s
      not my job to say “I didn’t like this movie.” It’s my job to get into the
      details about what I think worked, and what I think didn’t work. You are free
      to disagree with me, and free to publish your own review. If I wrote
      one-sentence reviews… or worse, dishonest one-sentence reviews… my sixteen-years
      of work as a film critic would have ended 
      a long time ago.

       

      Send me your address. I’ll send you a free copy of Through
      a Screen Darkly
       as a peace offering. I can respond to your concerns better
      with that book than with a blog-post comment.

       

      “Everyone’s salvation experience is different…one is not
      better than the other.”

       

      An interesting comment. I was not judging one person’s
      salvation experience as different than another. But we can certainly say that
      some people, after they encounter Jesus, respond to that encounter better than
      others. Some go out and commit crimes in Jesus’ name; others follow Jesus and
      do their best to learn from his humble example. I wasn’t judging either of
      those things. I was offering an opinion of a movie, a somewhat-fictionalized
      version of a real man’s life. (Childers himself has talked about which parts of
      the movie were embellished by the filmmakers.)

       

      “Sam is an unique individual as each apostle was, not perfect, flawed, but
      forgiven.”

       

      I have no argument with you about Sam himself. I do not know
      the man. Again, I was writing about the story I saw on the screen, not the
      real-life situation. That’s my job.

       

      “This movie could reach people that are flawed that would
      never enter a church because of the judgemental attitudes of most.”

       

      It could. I know people who have been inspired to accept
      Christ because of great movies, and others who have done the same because of
      terrible movies. My job is to examine a movie, applaud its strengths, criticize
      its weaknesses. You wouldn’t buy a bad car just because it had a Christian
      bumper sticker, would you? My job is to tell you the condition of “the car.”

       

      “By such a critical view of yours, many may not see it and
      the children in Sudan with not get the financial help needed by the proceeds of
      this movie.”

       

      I think you overestimate my influence. First of all, the
      film’s been out for a while now. Secondly, most moviegoers don’t read film
      reviews. Third, again, my job is to examine and discuss the quality of a film.
      If I start saying nice things about mediocre movies just so that money will go
      to a good cause, I’ll be a failure at my job.

       

      “I am a Christian bought by the blood of Jesus, nothing else
      needs to be said.”

       

      Interesting. Then why did you write such a long comment? And
      what does this have to do with my review? Did I challenge your faith in Christ?

       

      “I am truly disappointed by your review. What an opportunity
      you missed.”

       

      Yes, I had an opportunity to be dishonest. I had an
      opportunity to do my job poorly, and praise a film because it has an honorable
      subject. But I see films every month that have honorable subjects but are not
      well-crafted. Nothing would please me more than to see a great film about a
      great subject. When I do, I sing its praises.

  • Pingback: christianoutreachnow.com - Machine Gun Preacher (Forster, 2011) : Filmwell()

  • Lillibet49

    Your fictional story might have merit, but this is a real character who is every bit as agressive, brusque and action oriented as portrayed.  That is Childers, who is what he is and definitely is not a New Christian poster boy.  The story is that the same adrenalin he used to pour into his biker days he now pours into saving kids in Africa.  Yes, they happen to be black.  But too few others seem to want to save them from death and maiming. 

    So maybe the Lord works in mysterious ways, very mysterious ones that the pure and peaceful Christians have no understanding of.  He is not a textbook example of the redemptive power of God. He is a unique example of turning your life around but still burdened by who and what you are.  Isn’t He supposed to take you where you are and put you to His purposes?  Maybe that is Childers, doing what he does where he does it.  Not easy, not pure, not particularly thoughtful, choosing the bible verses that call for resolute action, and a holy sword and not the ones calling for “let’s all get together and love one another” hand holding.

    That’s the problem with too many reviews.  This is a story about Childers as he is, not as you think he should be.  And he’s not promoting a particular world view or Christian ideal.  He does what he does in the name of his God.  The film stirs up a lot of questions – it’s supposed to.  It’s greatest failing with critics is that it asks you to think.  Oh, shame.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Responding to Lillibet49:

      Your fictional story might have merit, but this is a real character who is every bit as agressive, brusque and action oriented as portrayed.
      It is not my job to worry about the real character. It’s my job to critique the film. I wasn’t saying that they should have portrayed Childers as something he isn’t. I was saying that the film focuses intensely on this aspect of his personality, and fails to focus on other things that are happening… things that are very important. The very fact that moviegoers won’t remember the names of Childers’ Sudanese friends and companions, and that they probably won’t know much more about the conflict than they did before, and that the movie doesn’t wrestle much with the central questions about Childers’ work… that’s what bothers me. 

      I would respond to more of your comment, but it all seems to be defending Childers. And I’m not attacking Childers. I’m criticizing the way this movie was made, and what the filmmakers failed to provide. 

      But I do disagree with this: “The film stirs up a lot of questions – it’s supposed to.  It’s greatest failing with critics is that it asks you to think.”

      I wanted the film to stir up more questions. I didn’t feel it provoking me to think about much of anything. I spend my moviegoing life looking for films that make me think, and this one disappointed me.

      • Oscar Schneegans

        If you “didn’t feel [“Machine Gun Preacher”] provoking me to think about much of anything”, then I hate to break it to you, but the problem is with you, not the movie.

        • jeffreyoverstreet

          As the Dude would say, “That’s, like… your opinion, man.” The work of missionaries, the dangers of violence, and the uneasy relationship between the religion and power… these are subjects I think about all the time. I felt that the movie only scratched the surface of big issues. I know people who have served in Sudan who agree with me about this. So you and I will have to agree to disagree.

          If you are going to comment, please post something of substance. If you’re just going to post put-downs, then your comments will be deleted.

  • guest

    After reading your review I wanted to share this trailer for Sam Childers
    new documentary which is to be released soon,  This is how Sam sees
    himself  http://vimeo.com/22405403   not how the director of the film
    saw him.  And I think it answers you comment: “Childers is so busy flexing his “guns” that you half-expect him to march
    out into a barrage of gunfire and tear the enemy apart with his bare
    hands.  He’s always aggressive, brusque, sweaty, and feverish.”

    Also this is another longer documentary trailer on Sam Childers from 2 years ago.  http://vimeo.com/10621294   you will note that –  “Sam Childers is always aggressive, brusque, sweaty, and feverish.”

    The movie is a biopic on one man Sam Childers not on all Christians and to his credit Mr. Forster let’s the audience decide how they feel about a preacher with a machine gun and a bible.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      As I said in previous replies: It is my job to critique what is on the screen, not the inspiration for it. Sure, Childers may indeed be just like Butler’s performance. But my frustration is that the film is very eager to illustrate that, but not very good at illustrating other characters, the context, the questions raised by Childers’ work, etc. My complaints are about filmmaking, not the real guy or his work.

      But if you’d like to read some comments on the real guy and his work, let me share a message posted by a friend of mine who has worked there:

      “You know I have been active regarding the child soldier war
      in central Africa with several trips there and even more to Washington DC. By
      “militarizing” his faith-inspired humanitarian efforts, Sam made all
      responders in that region potential LRA targets in “push back” to his
      taking up arms. He made the situation more complicated and dangerous for
      everyone.”

      That’s my friend’s testimony, not mine. But it raises some of the very questions that I would have like to see a film suggest.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1521695758 Diane Williams

        The LRA has not raided a village in the area where Sam Childers built his orphanage for over two years. Kony is based in Congo now because Sam and his SPLA soldiers have made their area safe.

  • letterman

    Based on the interviews with Childers I’ve seen, this movie has limited insight into its hero. And based on the comments so far, the movie’s fans have limited insight into the movie, and the review they’re commenting on. There’s an ironic symmetry, there.

  • http://www.wilfordlauren.tumblr.com Lauren Wilford

    “Oh well, it could have been worse. This could have been a Mel Gibson movie.”

    Hey, wait…

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      I suspect that a Mel Gibson version of this story would have amplified the violence, amplified the testosterone, and amplified the “glory” of unleashing hell on the enemy. But Gibson is already busy on another film… which happens to be, yes, a war movie about men taking up arms to shed blood for a good cause. The man knows his strengths.

  • Justin

    As per Jeffery’s request. I kinda wondered about the ethics as well, I wonder where the line is between defense of the weak using whatever means necessary, and the usage of violence that is beyond a moral good. Childers in one of his interviews made it seem as if he couldn’t have helped it. And that’s what I really wonder, could he? He did seem disappointed that the movie did not really explore faith more deeply, but happy to have a platform. I also agree that movies have been too light in their portrayal of christianity, and in fiction as well….I haven’t really found an author who spans that as well as one named Chris Fabry. He goes deep, and yet still relates faith and Christianity as simply facts of life. I hope to see more stories like that in the future, and while Machine Gun Preacher may be flawed, there is a glimmer of hope in it towards that.

  • Gail

    check out this conversation guide on the movie:
    http://www.americanbible.org/machine-gun-preacher

  • pscottcummins

    You know I have been active regarding the child soldier war in central Africa with several trips there and even more to Washington DC. By “militarizing” his faith-inspired humanitarian efforts, Sam made all responders in that region potential LRA targets in “push back” to his taking up arms. He made the situation more complicated and dangerous for everyone.

  • Pingback: Machine Gun Preacher (2011)()

  • http://www.facebook.com/fabrice.bousser Fabrice Bousser

    @pscottcummins : The weight of the sincerity in the testimony of an involved man, as you seem to be, should be taken in concern ; however how to know these peoples wouldn’t have been targeted anyway ? … Before Sam Childers came, were LRA or even al-Baschir mercenaries awaiting for anyone’ actions to take weapons against innocent peoples before ?
    I assume I can write this only because I am not personally involved, but I am afraid sometimes a fire must be enlighten to extinct another fire : Isn’t it what he’s trying to do according to you ?

    About the movie, I am agree with most of the arguments written by Jeffrey Overstreet in his review… And still, I loved the movie.
    In fact, I even found some of the frustrating aspects of the movie appealing…
    I assume Faith just can’t be explained, it has to be lived ; other peoples around you can only feel your faith by the strength you get in your acts or, in a lesser way, in your words.
    Indeed, I think words, are lesser faith relieving, and more used for convincing purposes.
    This is why I feel this movie was right to insist more on Sam Childers sudden involvement and actions, as a desperate and passionate thing, than on anything else such as what words in the bible could have really had any impact on how he changed.
    This “kind of void”, in the movie might reflect very well the void in the “real human being” he wanted then to become ; Jesus, after all, could have been nothing more than an argument to convince other peoples he wanted in some way to get closer of them…
    …And that doesn’t need to be more, I guess.
    The irony is the hero won’t finally get so close of these neighbors he was preaching for on Sunday : He wants to love them but couldn’t and, still, he had to flee away, to something else, exactly as he used to do in his past life – but now, deeper and deeper in a salvation trip instead of a pure destruction trip ; what more do you want to explain ?
    Maybe other characters in the movie should have received a better focus – usually I prefer movies with many non-central characters – but in this very-typical case, I think it’s good to follow the man from closed.

    My main regret are about 2 things :

    – The movie should have tell a lot more about what was -and is- happening in Sudan.

    – Buying a copy of this movie should bring some money to the cause : Of course, author copyrights may have been given to Sam Childers… But what now ?
    Many people buying the movie would have have been happy if was mentionned on the jacket something like “20% of the money you used to buy this movie will be send to Sudan to Digg wells” – for example. Too bad this is not the case.