MACHINE GUN PREACHER Review
Gerard Butler fills the role of Sam as only he can, with humorless glassy eyed vulnerability and a puffer chest. The film opens with Sam being released from prison into immediate car sex with his wife (Michelle Monagahan), quickly followed by the revelation that she's found Jesus and quit her job as a stripper. One thunderous tantrum and one violent night of serious parole violation later, Sam hits spiritual rock bottom, and then comes to God. So right there, in the first fifteen minutes, we've got the full range of any given vintage Billy Graham movie (sans the violence and the car sex). But "Machine Gun Preacher" is just getting started.
After establishing a successful construction business, Sam is prompted by a guest speaker at church to take a short-term missionary trip to Africa. But bandaging up sick people isn't enough for Sam. When he catches wind that there's a civil war going on not hours away, he's found his true calling. Good with a hammer and not afraid to use a gun, he establishes a rescue orphanage for the many endangered children of the region who are routinely rounded up and sold into all manner of horrible slavery. Sam accomplishes a lot in Uganda, and it's hard to imagine that anyone else could have or would have done the same thing. But when the horrors inherent in direct involvement mount up within him (witnessing constant death and tragedy, having to take enemy lives, etc.), he doesn't fare so well on the home front.
Along the way, we are shown much in the way of gut-wrenching horror that plagues Uganda. Knowing that this stuff is real - and that what the film is dramatizing is probably not even as bad as the reality - is sobering for anyone. These people need help - our help, that's absolutely true. To deny that "Machine Gun Preacher" deeply affected me on that level would be dishonest. (One would need to be nearly inhuman not to be affected.) That's not to say, however, that the same effect couldn't be reached by showing me an aid-worker's support-raising slide show. (Which brings me to my next point...)
If we are to gauge the success of a film by how well the creators realized what they set out to make, then "Machine Gun Preacher" jams up. Sam Childers (the real guy) is on record as saying that he wasn't interested in making a film about Sam Childers, but rather creating a massive fundraising/awareness apparatus for his outreach. And so, in the mold of other such auto-biographical films, this one ends with several paragraphs of on-screen text informing us where things stand currently before lapsing into the closing credits, which accompany photos and archival footage of the film's real-life counterparts. (And like so many other such sequences, this is where we see how dolled up the movie version really is, flying in stark contrast to the heavy, graying and real people seen with the credits.) All this follows a final vindication of Childers mission and his methods, a necessity if the fundraising aspect is to have any weight.
But, a film about Sam Childers is quite clearly what Marc Forster was interested in making -and he did just that. Forster, clearly more interested in exploring the dichotomy of the gun-toting man of God, only truly comes to life as a director when he begins to question his lead character. As Sam swings from extreme anger to extreme righteousness and then to extremely righteous anger, the films makes no bones about pointing out his mental instability for dramatic effect. No easy answers are offered as Sam's outrage with Western tight-fisted affluence gives way to domestic breakdown. So, like Sam Childers himself, the film of his life is uncomfortably straddling two divergent purposes, with multi-faceted consequence to both poles.
As for Forster, one wonders how much of this condemnation of Western affluence is him purging himself of having made the last Bond film, that series known for cash-oozing spectacle. How does one reconcile having made a film where Daniel Craig's weekly cufflinks budget exceeded the $5000 Childers can't raise to buy a new truck to save Sudanese children's lives? Perhaps making this film, returning to making "Marc Forster movies", is his answer. Whatever the case, he clearly learned a thing or two about staging action scenes from his time with 007, as the combat scenes in "Machine Gun Preacher" are, for what they're worth, more competently realized than they were in "Quantum of Solace".
One of the film's greatest practical detriments is that its screenplay (by rookie writer Jason Keller) is so fragmented, with so little organic flow from one scene to the next, that the whole plot feels designed to be broken down into a series of written note cards pinned to a bulletin board, then re-shuffled as necessary. As the film begins jumping back and forth from Pennsylvania to Uganda and back again over and over, the ride feels like one of labored construction rather than a fluid story.
In a year that's so far provided quite an array of films that deal directly with Christianity, it's interesting to note the that the diversity of approach within these films is almost as pronounced as that of the denominations within the religion. We've gone from the innocuous tween-centric triumph of the human spirit (wrapped in occasional scripture for good measure) "Soul Surfer" to the mind-blowing collision of the miraculous and the mundane in Terrence Malick's immaculate "The Tree of Life". Then came Vera Farmiga's uneasy yet reverent look within a small American Christian community in "Higher Ground". And now "Machine Gun Preacher" blasts in. With it's unapologetically raw, tell-like-it-is approach, it's the most visceral gut-punch of the pack; it's message delivered with The Sledge Hammer Of Truth.
It's all too inviting to take issue with Childers' methods, but I'm not going to do that. (Heck, Childers himself practically invites it with his personal address to the camera in the closing credits.) My thinking is that certainly God can use a modern warrior, just as he can use the pacifists who would challenge Childers. I do take issue with the way the film depicts his running of his own church (which he establishes concurrently to the orphanage), and his lone wolf approach to his work overseas, but those are points to be made elsewhere.
Other critics have harped on the fact that this is yet another film about a white person charging to the aid of undeveloped black characters, but the fact of the matter is that the people of Uganda desperately do need help, and Sam Childers has taken great strides to do so. If his is a story to be told on film, then yes, it's another one of those stories. My detractions are with the film's own inner conflicts and purposes, which thankfully don't completely annihilate the dramatic inner conflicts of the troubled man of faith within. Forster has made a far from perfect film (which, quite frankly, he has a tendency of doing), but it is not invaluable, even as it shoots to extremes.
- Jim Tudor
Machine Gun Preacher
- Marc Forster
- Jason Keller
- Gerard Butler
- Michelle Monaghan
- Kathy Baker
- Michael Shannon
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