[Beliefnet, February 10, 2006]
Beliefnet Film Awards, 2006
What’s so inspirational about James J. Braddock, the “Cinderella Man”? Audiences have already given plenty of love to a movie about a spunky boxer – “Million Dollar Baby,” in which Maggie displayed her self-discipline and courage. And they’ve already cheered for a Depression underdog (underhorse?) fighting against long odds, when “Seabiscuit” thundered down the home stretch. Do we really need another film like this?
What makes the character of Braddock different from those and other tough cinematic fighters is a trait rarely found in athlete movies (or any kind of movie): humility. The shape of Braddock’s story may be familiar: a guy who has a modest rise, then a fall, and then a heroic re-ascension. But the kind of guy is different. He’s not the typical adrenalin-charged, top-of-the-world character whom we usually see. Instead, he’s modest, gentle, even a touch melancholy. Braddock doesn’t pursue boxing honors because he craves fame or prestige; he just wants to feed his family, and undertakes life-threatening work to do so.
This is a twist on the usual sports-hero movie, and a healthy one. When so many films in this genre promote destructive traits like vanity, vengeance, and domination of others, James Braddock, the humble hero, is a breath of fresh air.
Chronicles of Narnia
Despite the old Hollywood adage, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” most movies do have some kind of moral intention. In rare cases, this “message” is specifically religious; it aims to explore the tenets of a particular spiritual path. While many films this year ably convey significant moral, and even spiritual, ideas, only one presents the core thesis of one of the world’s great religions. “The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is an adaptation of the slim book by the same name by C. S. Lewis, and his fantasy tale includes, not just a Christ-figure, but a similitude of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
So the movie, in addition to being a delightful adventure tale, also imagines how the basic events of Christian history might have played out in a different, parallel world. But the way the sacrifice made by the Christ-figure, Aslan, is understood in the story doesn’t exactly match what every Christian would say. Lewis presents Aslan’s death as a victory over the White Witch, possible because she failed to understand the “Deeper Magic.” In this he echoes a very ancient view that is more common in the Eastern Christianity, less so in Euro-American varieties.
“Narnia” is to be applauded for bringing to the screen, and exploring, the specific beliefs of a specific faith. Deeply held religious convictions affect a great deal of what goes on in the world, and as long as we cover this with a cotton-candy layer of “Oh, we all really believe the same thing in the end” (a kind of intellectual imperialism), we will continue to be blindsided by unanticipated disagreement. Tolerance is worthless if it is not based on accurately understanding what, exactly, we’re agreeing to tolerate. Films that clearly present and explore theological convictions help us all understand each other better, even when we still disagree.
Walk the Line
What a missed opportunity. This fine film gets so much right: Joaquin Phoenix’s smoldering portrayal of Johnny Cash, Reese Witherspoon’s unexpectedly strong portrayal of June, the high-powered musical numbers, the very look and feel of the thing, that it makes up for a script that is a little bit flat. But shouldn’t a bio-pic include the most powerful elements of the bio? Where in this movie is Johnny Cash’s life-long wrestling with God?
Patrick Carr, the co-author of “Cash: The Autobiography” (1997), told the Washington Times that Cash “retained his Christian beliefs throughout his life…He was an absolute believer in the Christian God.” (It’s a belief Carr himself declines to share). When Cash was going through his years of drinking, drugging, and fooling around, he was simultaneously “conscience-stricken and extremely ashamed of himself.” If the movie had shown us that interior conflict, it would have added a much-needed layer of complexity to the character.
And how about this life-changing event? At the end of his rope, and having taken “pounds of pills,” Cash goes into a mountain cave. He wanders deeper and deeper down the passages until his flashlight batteries burn out. He then lies down to die, figuring no one will ever find him. But then he experiences a thought taking shape inside, a kind of instruction. It tells him that he does not have the authority to decide whether he lives or dies. It’s not up to him. So Cash gets to his feet, and, in total darkness, stumbles back out through the labyrinth to the light.
But that’s not in the movie, nor any other exploration of what faith meant to Johnny Cash. We get only a brief glimpse – maybe 10 second’s worth — of June and Johnny in the parking lot of a country Baptist church, walking towards the open doors.
The challenging and empowering elements of Christian faith were a strong part of Johnny Cash’s life. So why weren’t they part of the movie? A film that is subtle in presenting themes of faith and spirituality could well deserve recognition as “Best Spiritual Film;” a film that goes out of its way to avoid those themes does not.