War Room

Release Date: August 28, 2015
Review Date: September 11, 2015
Reviewer: Blake Leath
Genre(s): Family, Faith-based/Spiritual

This is precisely the sort of film that gives Christian movies a hammy reputation.  It's cloying, silly, smothering, and rather than simply hitting the viewer over the head with a frying pan once or twice, it comes at you with the subtlety of Wile E. Coyote straddling a rootin' tootin' railcar burdened with more explosives than wisdom or strategy.

Absolutely, it is sweet, mildly endearing, 100% earnest, and well-intentioned.  Any movie that professes Christ is Lord, one should love his neighbor, grace is good and forgiveness essential deserves screen time at the local cineplex alongside films like Seven or Fight Club or Trainwreck.  There's a lot of darkness and smut in this world, and light is welcomed.

I suppose, in the end, it's a matter of taste.  I prefer a hint of this, a dash of that, not the entire bottle of A.1. slathered all over my steak.

The producers' miscalculations, if there are some, appear two-fold.  First, they write as if they are writing for children.  And second, the films behave as if this is the one and only opportunity to share, to teach, to impart all they know in one fell swoop, very "instructively," rather than simply creating a feeling, piquing one's interest, or compelling a single step in a very long journey.  For heaven's sake, let the church, other believers, or other longstanding resources do the heavy lifting; a 2-hour film needn't be the proverbial be-all and end-all, lest it run the risk of running folks off entirely.

In my little mind, U2 is a suitable object lesson for this conundrum.  Listen to Pride (In the Name of Love), Gloria, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, Until the End of the World, Beautiful Day, Grace, Vertigo, Magnificent, or even the less subtle 40 or Yahweh and you'll hear what I mean.  Their faith-oriented song explorations have saturated the world (170 million albums sold, 22 Grammys), but I have never felt hit over the head by U2.

Obviously, the band itself has issues, and I'm not suggesting they are faithy exemplars, but rather, artists who have created messages that make one think, or feel, or act...without being dunked didactically in an overly heavy-handed way that feels remarkably similar to, "Go clean your room, and just wait until your father gets home."

I felt more encouraged, more inspired, more humbled and moved to action as a little boy by Sidney Poitier's performance as the dignified and gentlemanly Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night than I did after seeing him portray Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field.  The latter had every advantage to preach and be a message movie, but the former felt gritty, real, accessible, genuine, and ultimately more true.  There are numerous reasons for this, some of which have to do with tension, atmosphere, talent, potential crises, and set-up, but the fact remains the same: when it comes to preaching, less is more.

The sweep of recent and forthcoming faith-based films, be they Fireproof, Courageous, End of the Spear, Facing the Giants, Heaven Is for Real, War Room, 90 Minutes in Heaven, or Captive all succumb to the same quicksand: to the extent they are true to their roots and base, they attract the already attracted, while repelling those whom they might otherwise reach were they less cheesy or strident or both. 

Hollywood, to say nothing of Franklin, TN, has long struggled with how to portray belief on film.  Ponder for a moment the breadth of Heston, von Sydow, Dafoe, Caviezel, Neeson, Fiennes, Bale, Waters, Powell, even Jack Black, and productions as diverse and rangy as Jesus Christ Superstar, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Passion of the Christ, The Bible, Noah, Exodus, and Last Days in the Desert.  Some are literal, some are figurative, some have been scholarly, while others entirely blasphemous and offensive or, perhaps equally egregious and unforgiveable (as far as the marketplace is concerned): flat-out stupid. 

To the extent there is a formula, a dress pattern worth following when exploring something as potentially ethereal as faith, I suggest looking to the least expected source for inspiration: horror films.  The best horror films say a lot, while showing very little.  They are small, precise, intimate, unornamented, well-written character studies that feel calm and gentle...until they are not.  Nosferatu, Rosemary's Baby, The Mothman Prophecies, The Babadook, and 2016's soul-jarring The Witch, for example, stick in the craw long after overdone special effects, computer graphics, or buckets of blood are forgotten.  For that matter, the original Friday the 13th and Halloween stand the test of time, while their subsequent incarnations became virtually indistinguishable gore fests, none of which I remember at all.

Give me one, two, or three great characters (acted well), interacting as real people do, conflicted as real people are, groping and grasping as everyone does, and then reconciling their doubts with their beliefs in ways that are equally messy and ongoing and jagged and believable, and we'll have witnessed a film that makes people think, not after-school-specialed to death.

And in the end, changed the conversation, because the audience itself may have changed.