Friday, September 29, 2006

Review: Facing the Giants

Here we go on the first movie review on this blog!

Tonight (opening night, no less), a group of friends and I went to see a feature film called Facing the Giants. Produced, directed, funded, and acted by the members of Sherwood Baptist Church (the only "professionals" on the entire team were the camera crew), the film was distributed by a Christian music company and is now playing in over 400 theaters this weekend alone. That's a nearly unprecedented feat for an independent Christian film (the only comparable showing was that of End of the Spear last year). And to be quite honest, I think that Facing the Giants is probably the better movie of the two.

The movie is in some sense a typical football movie: football team has a bad record, coach is struggling personally both on the field and off, opposition arises both internally and externally; and in the end the team rises above the challenges to succeed against all odds, ultimately winning a state championship, even as the coach overcomes his own personal challenges. What sets this film apart is that the team really doesn't overcome the challenges for itself; nor does the coach deal with his personal difficulties on His own. Throughout, there is a very genuine look at faith and at choosing to praise God no matter what the circumstance. Moreover, the situation seems much more real than in almost any football movie I've seen - despite the fact that the others tend to be based on historical events, and this one is purely speculatory. More on that in the conclusion. The movie opens with the following situation: the team hasn't had a winning season in six years; the coach and his wife are unable to have children; their house smells (it turns out rather humorously to be the fault of a rotting rat); their car is so broken down it hardly runs; and they haven't the money to deal with any one of these problems. By the end of the movie, every one of these problems is resolved, as one would expect from any Hollywood production.

What wouldn't expect from a Hollywood production, though obviously would from a Biblical church, is that each of these victories is achieved only after the people surrender to God, and choose to prepare the fields they're responsible for rain, whenever God chooses to bring it, whatever it looks like - when they say that ultimately they will praise Him no matter what. He then moves mightily in their lives, because it is for His glory. Sound preachy? I was expecting it to be (this is a church presentation, after all!). I was pleasantly surprised to find that it never really came across that way, but rather as very genuine faith by very genuine people dealing with genuine struggles. It was a pleasant change from the outright irreverence with which Hollywood treats active, heartfelt, lived out, Biblical Christianity. I won't spoil the ending any more than I already have, but suffice it to say that there was a satisfactory ending to every line - and on more than just a visceral level; it honestly communicated well to my heart and spirit, not just my emotions.

There was no objectionable content in the least - no swearing, and no sexuality. The only moment I can think of in the film that anyone might find objectionable in the least was a shot of a flying cheerleader, and that was so modest compared to Hollywood that I probably only noticed it because everything else was so chaste. There was also one other extremely veiled reference to pornography - but in the context of noting that as people living for God, the team ought to be living for Him everywhere, including on what they did on the Internet while at home alone. In short, this film was thoroughly wholesome.

I feel here at the end I owe some explanation of how the film came to be. Sherwood Baptist Church's elders had been praying for some time about how to really reach out and touch culture, and had a certain vision for doing things in an unorthodox way with the church - their church is very solid Biblically; don't mistake me: they simply wanted to do outreach in a new way. Alex and Stephen Kendrick, associate pastors, had grown up doing film projects, and had a vision for making movies that would reach culture, after seeing a Barna study noting that, more than any other single medium or method, movies reach out and touch culture. With their senior pastor's accompanying vision for reaching - and changing - the world from Albany, Georgia, the church set out to make movies. Facing the Giants was made on what amounts to a shoestring budget of $90,000. The money was entirely raised by church members and private contributions. For filming, the church had a single camera; for acting they had the members of the church and a few outsiders; for feeding the cast and crew they had only the members of the church. The only professionals working on the film, the camera crew, were top-of-the-line, coming from having shot last year's successful and moving Friday Night Lights, and that quality makes a big difference in the production.

For distribution - often one of the most difficult (sometimes insurmountable) tasks for independent films) - the church was at a loss, until God stepped in. As in the movie itself, real life demonstrated the sovereignty of God in bringing together impossibilities to glorify His name. The church contacted Beach Street Records, the label responsible for Casting Crowns, Third Day, and several other well-known Christian bands, looking for permission to use music by the aforementioned bands in the course of the movie. BSR responded by asking to see the film in order to see if it fit with their vision - that is, their vision not only of publishing good Christian musicians, but also of distributing quality Christian films to general theaters across the county. That's not trivial, and hardly something attributable to circumstance. No, that is a direct consequence of the heart of prayer in the entire church during the production of the film.

What comes through strongest in the film is that the people who made it had a commitment both to honoring God completely - to be utterly true to His word and to good Biblical theology - and to excellence of artistry. Does the movie have its off moments? Yes. The acting is occasionally over the top. But then, to balance it out, the characters often have a genuineness about them that is alien from most Hollywood productions these days. I can't recall the last time a movie had me on the verge of tears so many times. Perhaps some of that is because I can so readily identify with the struggles of a football team, having been there and done that, but I was far from the only person so moved in the theater. There is a sense of truth to the struggles of these characters, a sense that, yes, people really do talk like this - no eloquent speeches when things fall apart, just that lost, angry questioning of God. Their faith is real; their struggles are real; their personalities ring true - and yes, their silly humor is exactly the way people really act. And that's not something I can say of many movies recently. I suspect that's the case for several reasons, not least that these are real people, not actors; and that they have such a passion and heart to please God in what they are doing. The issues they face are the issues faced by common people in America; the language is normal and natural because this is the language spoken by these people. Above all, the movie rang true because, in some sense, it is. The characters may be imagined, but as Tolkien noted, fiction can ultimately be True even in ways that reality may not, if it is in fact reflecting the ultimate truth of God's lordship and love for His children.

In the final analysis, Sherwood Baptist Church lived by what it was teaching: trust God with the results, and no matter what they end up looking like, praise Him. Like the team at the heart of its story, Facing the Giants seems with this to have found the ultimate winning strategy. But more importantly by far, they're doing it with the right heart. My recommendation: go see it, and more than once.

- Chris

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