Holy Man, by Jack Fleischer
Machine Gun Preacher struck me as not particularly compelling in the trailer. White man travels to Africa, realizes things there are bad, feels guilty, and uses his hardscrabble “country” ways to help the locals. But after watching it, I find it to be a much more interesting and complex story. I’m still not sure that the movie does justice to the true story it’s based on, but I’d be a liar if I said this was a bad movie. Is it worth your theater dollar? That’s hard to say, but if you’re looking for a slick mainstream mash-up of The Blind Side and Schindler’s List, this flick is for you.
The story begins with train wreck of a life being lead by biker, thug, thief, and schmecker, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler). Released from prison he finds that his wife (Michelle Monaghan) has left the pole and found Jesus for the sake of their daughter. After a series of unfortunate events in which Childers’ life bottoms out, he takes another plunge and finds Jesus.
He builds his life back up piece by piece, and while on a missionary trip to the Sudan he finds a new mission. On a whim he travels to a war zone, and discovers that children there live in constant fear of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an enemy army which kidnaps kids and forces them to take part in horrific war atrocities.
The short points on this film are that it is uplifting and hopeful, if at times gruesome. The directing (Monster’s Ball’s Marc Forster) is fine, the cinematography is fine, and with the possible exception of a compelling scarred Sudanese child who confides in Childers, the acting is fine and unremarkable. While I’ve never particularly been a Butler fan, is it rude to say that here he makes a believable blowhard?
Really, as often becomes the handicap of a biopic, the movie seems to become a servant to the real story. There are times when I don’t understand the conversion or motivations of Butler’s depiction of Childers. It’s not that I don’t think it happened, rather it seems like the details weren’t cinematic enough or a suitable replacement couldn’t be conceived of. Things happen a certain way because that’s the way they should happen, rather than in a manner that services a movie.
It appears as if large portions of the “real” story have been left out of the film. This is evident in two parts; first in a passage of time marked by the sudden growth of Childers’ daughter, secondly in the film’s rather abrupt and text laden ending. I don’t know that I missed anything during the daughter’s growth, and the ending sends an important message that the struggle continues, but both also seems indicative of a tale that may have been too big to fit within the confines of a 123-minute conventional narrative film.
The converse is also true, and sometimes it seems like the film over simplifies the story. If you stick around for the end credits, you’ll see a man who is rougher around the edges in documentary footage that plays next to the credit crawl. He appears to be a man who could be seen as more conflicting or less conflicting, depending on your particular set of values. There’s a kind of mysterious complexity and depth I get from Childers in this five-minute documentary, that appear absent from the gun-wielding-superhero-outlaw-protector we get from Butler in the rest of the film.
Childers does not comes across as a saint. He’s shown killing people, even some young people. Yet where these deaths would come across as shocking and horrific in, say, a ‘70s era revenge film, here it comes across almost as sanitary as a Rick Perry brand™ death row execution. Every kill shot is presented as cleanly justified even if, at times, regrettable.
Machine Gun Preacher does offer brief and interesting examinations of: Might versus the light touch; Addiction to religion as a substitute for substance abuse, and; The renting pressure that comes from living up to different standards in different worlds with different values. This movie did move me at times, and I left feeling spoiled, as if I needed to do more for the world. Hell, my movie reviews have never saved a human life.
This is a mainstream movie for Middle American White Christians to congregate around. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s understandable given that this is Sam Childers’ story and not that of the Sudanese people. Yet as a result the story feels a tad shallow, and not particularly nuanced when it comes to some of the deeper issues presented. There absolutely was a surface level enjoyment to this film, but it’s ultimately just the tip of what appears to be a much more interesting iceberg.