Sherwood Pictures, the Baptist media ministry behind such movies as Facing The Giants and Fireproof, makes its most ambitious and noteworthy effort to date with the new feature film Courageous. A Christian family drama woven around the police force of a small Georgia town, the film follows several men through various trials of fatherhood. Each in turn must face the harsh realities of acting as provider, mentor, protector and role model. Ultimately, they find strength in one another and in their shared faith.
Courageous has a very focused message to deliver, and delivers it without a trace of reluctance or embarrassment. It opens with a highly charged encounter demonstrating the heroic power of fatherly love, and goes on to develop this idea, with consistent pace and clear narrative, as rooted in a deep commitment to Christian scripture and its guidelines for building a godly family. It is no plot spoiler to say that this film basically culminates with an altar call. That should be anything but a surprise ending. The wholesome worldview of Courageous and its frankness of purpose are its most admirable qualities.
In the interest of a fair and frank critique, let us dispense with the film’s weaknesses before examining its corresponding strengths. To begin with, the script is completely on the nose about what it wants to say, but at least it has a more worthwhile point to make than anything you will see on television. Much of the dialogue is natural enough, and occasionally quite funny. The humor is completely unbarbed, which is almost shocking when you are partial to a little acid in your jokes. It is when characters cease conversing to bare their inmost feelings that the dialogue gets mired down in melodrama. Fortunately, the director keeps things moving at a good pace, and the weak points in the script pass by without much lagging.
Two hours of screen time are not easy to fill without a fair amount of lagging, by the way. The script does include one subplot that is painfully out of step with the others. The story of Javier and Carmen, a Latino couple struggling to feed their children in a merciless job market, is just plain lame. Several factors contribute. To begin with, Sherwood Baptist Church must not have much of a Latino presence in its congregation. The actors in these roles neither look nor sound the part. Clearly Spanish is a second or possibly third language for them. But let’s write the casting off as well-meaning and misguided. What really does not fit is the theme of their story, in which God provides miraculous answers to their prayers out of a clear blue sky. Yes, sometimes that may happen, but it is completely at odds with the premise that through faith and trust in God, people gain the strength to make difficult choices for themselves.
I introduce the story of Javier and Carmen in the way a defense attorney might disclose damaging evidence, so that it will be useless in the hands of the prosecution later. Cutting that plot arc would have tightened the script immensely, even if it reduced the running time by half an hour. At very least, it strengthens the other aspects of the film by comparison.
The four peace officer protagonists play their parts very well. The main plot of the film follows them through a period of tested faith and friendship in the wake of a devastating loss suffered by deputy Adam Mitchell (Sherwood associate pastor Alex Kendrick) and his family. In the face of tragedy, he experiences a spiritual epiphany about the brevity of life. Meeting him halfway on this spiritual journey is deputy Nathan Hayes (Ken Bevel), whose own insight into the pain of growing up fatherless tempers their joint resolve to become better husbands and dads. Kendrick, as director and lead actor of the film, deserves a hand. Despite a few moments that would seem cheesy even in a church pageant, he deftly leads us through a plot which, though simple, is solidly crafted.
For a mostly volunteer effort, Courageous is astoundingly good from a technical standpoint. The cinematography, editing, stunt work and sound recording are well above the average of many independent films, and plenty of smaller studio films for that matter. Plot twists and elegant dialogue are worthless without the fundamentals, and in this respect the movie has its artistic priorities straight.
Several weeks ago, a more aggressive take on Christian outreach hit theaters, starring Gerard Butler and going by the name of Machine Gun Preacher. Following the laudable and terrifying career of philanthropist turned freedom fighter Sam Childers, the movie offers an unflinching look at how hard it is to do enough good in the worst parts of the world. Despite giving his entire body and soul to the protection of Sudanese orphans, Childers never finds himself a single step ahead of the bad guys. Ever. The movie spares no pains to impress upon its audience the bleak cycle of conflict and grieving that plague nations like Sudan.
But in the service of what, exactly? Though peopled with known actors, and presenting Christian activism in a positive light, Machine Gun Preacher fails as a film in far more fundamental ways than the humbler and more earnest Courageous. The tone and ultimate message of the former film are maddeningly unclear, due in no small part to poor plot structure. Build an orphanage, knock it down, take it out on your family. Build an orphanage, knock it down, lose a few innocent lives, take it out on your family. Just where is this long-winded critique meant to be aimed? The only definite point the film makes is that if you can afford to buy yourself a movie ticket, you should be ashamed at not having donated that ten dollars to overseas relief efforts instead.
Thanks, guys. You had me on your side with the promise of an uplifting drama, but now I feel like a jerk for being less than a Rambo for Christ. No middle ground, you say? What a shame.
Courageous, on the other hand, engages in no attention-grabbing excess. Without undue distraction, it makes its point clearly and in a way that a family can safely watch and discuss together. At the same time, it tackles themes of grief, sacrifice, forgiveness, and love with quite a firm hand. The main surprise is the amount of action in the movie – not exactly machine gun preaching, but certainly a couple of fairly involved police chases. We’re talking guns and everything, which adds major dramatic polish to counterbalance the sappier intervals. In this film, courage is not an abstract spiritual concept. These men risk their lives, and you bet they say a little prayer for deliverance every day before doing it. These are people you might know. They might be your neighbors, and if you met them, you might like them a lot.
Everything Courageous does, it does in the service of its message. Unlike almost any other movie you will see this year, its aim is not to pander to the greatest possible audience. Courageous is a ministry, and like all true ministries it is offered to receptive and hostile hearts alike. It takes real faith, and admirable conviction, not to compromise one’s message in favor of a sexier and more marketable finished product.
The numbers speak quite eloquently for themselves. Produced for two million dollars, the film grossed over nine million in its opening weekend and has been going strong for the past several weeks. Reviews have been mixed, but even critics with no stated affinity for Christian evangelism have found much to like about the movie’s execution and uplifting message.
I have only ever seen one movie about Christian faith and ministry that is excellent in all ways aesthetic and spiritual. That film is Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, and while Courageous may not exactly have that kind of big-screen firepower, it sticks to its core principles in much the same way. Would that Machine Gun Preacher, for all its showboating efforts, could have kept itself on track as well.
Is Courageous great art? By almost any accepted measure, no. Is it meant to be great art? Presumably not. Will it speak to your heart? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Does it achieve its goals truthfully and without pretense? Positively. Does it promote goodness, responsibility, honesty, and truth? Absolutely. Is it then a successful work? I think an “Amen” is in order.