Sunday, November 29, 2015

We Need to See More Movies Like ‘The 33′

33 praying
Marco Treviño and Juan Pablo Raba from ‘The 33,’ photo courtesy Warner Bros.
Reprinted from my Watching God blog on Patheos.
Theaters are full of secular movies where God’s name is mainly used as a curse. A few make room for some Christian movies, too—cinematic sermons made specifically to bolster belief (sometimes at the expense of the actual movie).
There’s not a lot of room left, it seems, for movies that show the sort of faith that looks familiar to most of us—a faith that’s not particularly showy or splashy or supernatural, but one that nevertheless is with us every day, even in the most horrific moments in our lives. Maybe especially in those moments.
The 33 introduces us to group of miners trapped nearly a half-mile beneath the earth’s surface. Their situation is incredibly dire: Mining is a dangerous business, and rescues are as rare as accidents are common. Early on, it feels like the mining company’s already given the trapped men up for dead. “Nobody’s going to hear us!” foreman Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) says. “Nobody’s going to help us!”
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Lou Diamond Phillips and Antonio Banderas in ‘The 33,’ photo courtesy Warner Bros.
In a fictional movie, that’d be the cue for some serious special effects. Director Michael Bay would save the miners through some spectacular explosions. Eli Roth would surely have the miners kill and eat each other. A Christian filmmaker might give the miners a mysterious tunnel to the top and, if he’s feeling particularly devout, maybe a few angels to dig it.
But The 33 is based on a true story, and this story does not allow for cannibalism or supernatural miracles. Director Patricia Riggen and the other filmmakers needed to follow, more or less, the facts. And the fact is, many of them did what many of us would do if trapped under a literal mountain: pray.
Faith isn’t the prime theme of The 33, but it undergirds much of the movie. Catholic iconography is found everywhere, it seems—totally fitting within this predominantly Catholic country. When a miner leader named Mario (Antonio Banderas) divvies up the final bits of their food, the meal takes on a Last Supper-like quality: One of the miners even envisions Mary and Jesus stopping by.
During that meal, a miner named Dario (Juan Pablo Raba) offers up a handful of cookie crumbs for the miners to share. It’s a deeply significant gesture, given that two weeks earlier, Dario ransacked the food stores and stuffed handfuls of cookies into his face. Of all the miners there in the dark, he’s the only one who felt truly lost—a selfish alcoholic with no direction or purpose.
In my Plugged In review, I draw some parallels between the mine and our concept of a hot, dark, hell—and no one feels that hell as sharply as Dario. Indeed, the mine becomes a place of torment for him, wracked by alcohol withdrawal and anguished regret.
But a miner known mainly as “the Pastor” befriends Dario and, in the midst of Dario’s torture, comes alongside him and comforts him. “We can say a prayer together, if you like,” he offers.
“I don’t know the words,” Dario says.
“God doesn’t care.”
We’ve seen sinner’s prayers in many a Christian movie, and sometimes they can feel forced and hokey. But in this context, it feels natural. It feels right.
“Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter asked Jesus when many other disciples were turning their backs on Christ. And there, in that pit, Dario’s turn to God bears a hint of Peter’s desperation. Like Peter, there was nowhere else for Dario to turn in that darkness. Like Peter, there were just two choices left to him: A life (whatever the rest of that life might look like) of hope and redemption, or of a turn to death. When you can’t save yourself, you must look for a savior.
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From ‘The 33,’ photo courtesy Warner Bros.
All the miners are, more or less, in a similar spot, relying on someone else to save them. They cannot escape the mine on their own. They must wait and hope and trust. They must have, in a very real sense, faith. And faith is a choice.
“I believe we’re going to make it out of here because I choose to believe it!” Mario thunders. “All 33 of us!” He chooses to believe in spite of the odds. In spite of the countless tons of earth above their heads. And faith is an incredibly powerful thing.
Mario and the miners weren’t waiting for a supernatural miracle—for that huge rock that blocked their way to magically vanish. But I believe their faith—in their ability to endure, the people topside and, yes, their faith in God—helped them to survive.
After 69 days, their faith was rewarded. Every one of those miners returned to the world of the living after more than two months in darkness. Before taking the strange elevator out of the mine, Mario scrawls on a wall, “God was with us.”
Faith doesn’t always move mountains. Sometimes, it’s enough for it to shed a little light inside them.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Spotlight: The Importance of Being Honest

“Everything in your life is public. There are no secrets. Everything you say, everything you do, everyplace (sic) you go, every thought you think is going to be known by all.”
Ted Haggard—one-time pastor of Colorado Springs’ massive New Life Church, one-time president of the National Association of Evangelicals—wrote that in his book Letters from Home. Those words proved sadly prophetic: In 2006, a male prostitute came forward, alleging that he and Haggard had had sex and used methamphetamines.  Haggard—one of the most powerful men in the evangelical movement at the time—was removed from the pulpit and became a national punchline.
I covered Haggard’s fall in 2006 as a secular religion reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette. Those words, soaked in irony, were strangely comforting as I pushed through this difficult story. And I remembered those words again as I watched Spotlight, one of the year’s best movies.
There are no secrets.
From Spotlight, courtesy Sony Pictures
Spotlight is a terrifically unsentimental story about how a team of Boston Globe journalists uncovered the pedophilic priest scandal in 2002. While the movie doesn’t yank at the heart like, say, Roomdoes, it feels utterly real. Utterly true. The detached zeal of the Globe’s reporters reminded me of the journalists I’ve worked with. The stories from abuse victims sounded very similar to what I heard during my own interviews when I covered the scandal—the reverence to which parish priests were held, and how those priests used that reverence for their own ends. “How do you say no to God, right?” one victim says. Spotlight felt spot on.
When the film begins its narrative in a pre-scandal, pre-9/11 world, the Diocese of Boston is arguably the most powerful institution in this predominantly Catholic city. Millions turn to the Catholic Church for guidance and solace. Its charities help countless people. It’s not a perfect institution: No one claims it is. But it’s inconceivable to most folks in Boston, including those who work at the Globe, that the Diocese would be hiding the darkest of secrets.
from Spotlight, courtesy Sony Pictures
from Spotlight, courtesy Sony Pictures
But as the Globe’s team of investigative reporters (known as Spotlight) begins digging, they discover that some of the diocese’s priests have been abusing young children. When parents come forward, the diocese sends them to other parishes or dioceses, where they’re free to molest again.
The Diocese tries to quash the investigation. One of its legal advisors appeals to Spotlight editor “Robby” Robinson’s sense of community and continuity. Robby (Michael Keaton) attended Catholic schools. He sees the good the charities do in the community. Don’t rock the boat, the lawyer suggests. Don’t destroy all the good the Church does because of a few bad apples.
But the Spotlight team pushes forward, and the story becomes ever more unseemly. It takes a toll on the reporters, too: Reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), a reporter who sometimes celebrated Mass with her grandmother, says she just can’t go to church anymore: It makes her too angry. Fellow reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) oozes fury. “They knew, and they let it happen!” he shouts. “To kids! It could’ve been you! It could’ve been me! It could’ve been any of us!”
And he had a right to be angry. Every Catholic did. It was a horrible story … and one that needed to be told.
When I was covering the Haggard scandal, many folks from his church didn’t understand my job and hated the fact that I was doing it. I was kicked out of the church one time. I got some pretty nasty e-mails. One official there once asked me, as a friend, not to print a follow-up. It’d destroy the church, he said. It’d hurt all the good work it had done.
I couldn’t do him that favor, of course. I wrote the story. But I understood the instinct to protect the church—protect an institution that means so much to so many people.
spotlight2When we love something, we want to protect it. And so, when the something or someone we love does something bad, our instinct for self-preservation kicks in. We deny or rationalize or hide the sordid truth.
But if our faith means anything at all, we have to be honest about those who do terrible things in its name. It’s only through ruthless truth-telling that our earth-bound Church can better reflect its heavenly ideals. It’s only through exposing its flaws that we can fix them.
The Catholic Church is smaller than it was before the scandal, but I think a better and cleaner one now. A review via the Vatican’s radio outlet praised the movie, and lauding the reporters who inspired it.
“It was a group of professional journalists of the daily Boston Globe that made themselves examples of their most pure vocation,” said Luca Pellegrini, who often comments on pop culture for Vatican Radio, “that of finding the facts, verifying sources, and making themselves—for the good of the community and of a city—paladins of the need for justice.”
Ultimately, there are no secrets. Lots of verses make that very clear. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil,” we read in Ecclesiastes 12:24. And I think that goes not just for our own personal secrets, but the institutional ones, as well. As Christians, we’re not supposed to just sell a Facebook version of our faith. We’re to be honest.
Spotlight is not a movie that’ll strengthen anyone’s faith. The truths told here are too brutal for that. But it’s an important story to tell, and an important one for us to hear.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Jobsenstein: The Odd Similarities Between Two Very Different Movies

Republished from my Watching God blog on Patheos.
In Universal Pictures Steve Jobs, we meet a brilliant, flawed protagonist—a man who demanded his gadgets be friendly and intuitive even though he (according to the film) was neither.
Michael Fassbender may well get nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Jobs, and it may seem odd that Universal rolled it wide the weekend before Halloween, the same time when frightflicks like The Last Witch Hunter and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension are trying to scare up some cash.
But I think Steve Jobs might be, curiously, a perfect fit for this spookiest of seasons. I watched 1931′s Frankenstein the night before I saw Steve Jobs, in fact, and I was pretty amazed that the parallels between the film’s two eponymous characters went far beyond the fact that their most famous creations were susceptible to heat.
Fritz, threatening the Monster’s mother board. (Courtesy Universal Pictures)
Both had a bit of a God complex. Dr. Victor Frankenstein—the mad scientist, not the monster—was considered a pretty brilliant guy even before he started stitching body parts together. His old mentor, Dr. Waldman, said as much. But mere brilliance wasn’t enough: He wanted to change the world. And when it looked like his little world-changing experiment worked, he was exultant. “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” he said.
When Steve Jobs prepares to unveil his Macintosh in 1984, he declares it to be one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century—right alongside the end of World War II. But when it looked like the demonstration might go awry, he tells his engineering lackey Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) that he must’ve squandered the three weeks to get it right. “The universe was created in a third of that time,” Jobs says.
“Well, someday you’ll have to tell us how you did it,” Hertzfeld said.
“If a fire causes a stampede to the unmarked exits, it’ll have been well worth it for those who survive.” quote from Steve Jobs. (Picture courtesy Universal Pictures)
Their first products flopped. Both Jobs’ Macintosh and Frankenstein’s monster had trouble talking at first: During the 1984 Mac demonstration, Jobs and Hertzfeld hook up the Macintosh’s “voice” up to a more powerful computer before it could utter its famous “hello.” And the monster … well, he also had to wait for a system upgrade. He never got the hang of speech until The Bride of Frankenstein.
Those products nearly destroyed their creators.  Mac was indeed a revolutionary product. But it undersold, nearly broke Apple and eventually gets Jobs fired. But at least Jobs has the solace that the Mac didn’t become sentient and try to kill him in a deserted, crumbling windmill.
“Reboot! Reboot!” (Photo courtesy Universal Pictures)
Both wanted to improve humanity. Neither Jobs nor Frankenstein really had much patience for human frailty or sensitivities. “The very nature of people is something to overcome,” Jobs insisted. He designed gadgets that were intuitive and friendly—intending them to be extensions of our own selves. And he did it with an eye toward human shortcomings.
Maybe Frankenstein’s creation was also intended to be sort of a human upgrade. It was bigger and stronger, that’s for sure—and like the original Mac, it had a remarkably square frame. I’m sure that the good doctor would argue that only an abnormal brain kept his creation from reaching its true potential.
Both had issues with women. Frankenstein practically ignored his fiancée, Elizabeth, while working on his monster. In fact, he barely deigned to let her into his secret laboratory … even though she was about to get swept off the side of a mountain in a huge lightning storm.
Jobs was likewise focused on the work at hand, shunning his onetime girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and denying the paternity of his daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss) for way too long. Thankfully, both Jobs and Frankenstein patched things up with the most important women in their respective lives—but not before each had to suffer the sting of failure.
The Monster wasn’t particularly adept with female companionship, either. (Photo courtesy Universal Pictures)
Both inspired copycats. Frankenstein was ostensibly through with monster-making when Dr. Pretorius came knocking, hoping to leverage the doctor’s innovations into another, better, prettier creature. As for Jobs’ creation … well, all you have to do is look around. There’s a whole (ahem) galaxy of products designed as iPhone or iPad or iMac “killers”, designed to be better or faster or, at the very least, cheaper than the originals.
In summary, Steve Jobs was, without question, an original thinker—a self-made man, if you will. But Steve Jobs, the movie, seems to owe something to a cinematic mad scientist who took “self-made man” to a whole different level.