by Jonathan Walker
A film by, for, and about Mormons comes to video.
Editor’s note: This review was originally written during God’s Army’s big screen debut.
I was talking with my sister and her husband just the other day and I thought they would be interested in hearing about God’s Army. The conversation went something like this:
Jonathan: There’s a new movie out about missionaries in L.A.
Jonathan: Yeah, it’s done by a member of the church.
Brother-in-law: It’s a documentary?
Jonathan: No, a fiction film.
Sister: Our missionaries?
Jonathan: Yeah. Mormon missionaries.
Brother-in-law: Is it put out by the Church?
Sister: On video?
Jonathan: No, in the theaters.
Brother-in-law and Sister: Really?
By the end of the conversation, I was sure they didn’t fully understand. They couldn’t wrap their brains around the fact that there could be a film by Mormons, about Mormons, and for Mormons in theaters.
Frankly, I expect that reaction from a lot of members of the church. We don’t yet have a precedent for telling our stories from our own point of view. Some people who see the film won’t know what to do about it. Are they supposed to take their non-member friends? Are they supposed to take their teenage son? Are they supposed to condemn it?
God’s Army isn’t a fireside address. It isn’t an example of model missionaries. It isn’t an expos. It isn’t sensationalized. It isn’t boring. In short, God’s Army isn’t a lot of things. And that may be its saving grace.
God’s Army starts out as Elder Allen (Matthew Brown) gets picked up from the L.A. airport by the office elders of the mission. As a Midwesterner, outer Mongolia wouldn’t be more foreign than the back streets of L.A. A drill sergeant Mission President assigns him to Elder Dalton (Richard Dutcher), a twenty-eight year old missionary who has a fire for the work. The rigors of mission life don’t prove to be an easy transition for this nineteen year old. Elder Allen learns a great deal from working with investigators, interacting with other missionaries, and overcoming his own personal struggles.
The characters are not types, symbols, or examples; they’re people. If we fall into the trap of feeling like they should in some way be examples of how missionaries should act, we can forgive ourselves. In the past, missionaries in film have constituted only two groups: the reprehensible non-member representation (a la Orgasmo) and the church endorsed characterization (as in Called to Serve and Labor of Love). We are wise to generally ignore the former and the latter is meant to be instructional. For the first time, we are invited to see a film about Mormons not as an attack, nor a misrepresentation, nor a teaching opportunity. We are meant to see the characters for what they are and enjoy the story for just that, storytelling.
Director Richard Dutcher and Meridian’s Film Editors,
Jonathan Walker and Karl Bowman
The film looks and acts like a Hollywood picture, with good directorial decisions, effective filmmaking, and good acting. Richard Dutcher (the film’s producer, writer, and director) chooses a hands-off approach to the directing. He calls it “directing like a writer.” He avoids unnecessary cinematic devices and camera movement. Doing this, the emphasis falls on the characters and the drama of the story. This focus proves effective because the acting is so believable.
For all its proficiencies, this is no Hollywood film. Dutcher makes particular care that he does not shy away from portraying the spiritual struggles and experiences of the missionaries. He deals with this part of these character’s lives as comfortably as he does the moments of comedy or drama. Those moments are so “at home” in the subject matter that their exclusion would have been a reprehensible oversight.
Even with the treatment of spirituality, Dutcher goes to great pains to assure that the film doesn’t look or sound like church-made films. He consciously avoids some of the conventions that are common to church-made productions like swelling music, warm cinematography, and didacticism. The effort is so good, and in many ways so beyond expectation, it seems futile to find fault with the film at all. Nevertheless, if there are faults in the film they exhibit themselves as too much talking in the third quarter of the film and too much information as a wrap-up at the end. However, if I had to make a prediction, more people will have critical things to say about the representation of Mormonism than about the filmmaking.
Members of the church might have some concern over a couple of aspects of the story. The elders play more pranks on each other than some may feel is appropriate as missionaries. There may be too much activity during nighttime hours. There may be too much interaction between the missionaries. What’s important to remember as you watch God’s Army is that this is not a documentary about mission life. This is a fictional story about people in unusual circumstances in a context familiar to members of the church. God’s Army may not tow the party line, but it walks it pretty close.
God’s Army probably couldn’t have been made any earlier than now. God’s Army’s audience is meant to be primarily Mormon. Dutcher is gambling that there are enough interested Mormons to support their own small film market. Such a scenario isn’t out of the question. And, if we truly continue to seek positive, uplifting films, having a stream of niche Mormon films will come sooner rather than later. When that happens the durability of the movement will probably depend completely on the quality of the films produced. If others of God’s Army’s ilk follow, they will surely find an audience.
If, when you see this film, you’re not sure what to do with it, just enjoy it. It’s not meant to be the means of converting the world, sending more young men on missions, or answering the recent LDS missionary misrepresentation in films like Orgasmo. This is a film that tells a Mormon story. It may be harder to accept it as a film than if we watched Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, but that’s because we are so unaccustomed to seeing ourselves as subjects of fictional filmmaking. I suggest you get used to it. Richard Dutcher is planning to do it some more.
We invite readers to submit their own, short reviews of the film.
I enjoyed the film very much. I found it refreshing to see real people struggle with who they are and what indeed they’re doing on their mission. No quick wrap-up of resolution and everyone embracing the gospel in the midst of personal confusion. Isn’t that life? I felt the story might be compared to the early apostles (not all of course) who had struggles of their own until they came to the full knowledge of their mission and who Jesus was. Well done. –Monte Roder
Like the Little House on the Prairie series (our former Family Home Evening activity), God’s Army made me cry one minute and laugh the next. I found it heart-warming and believable.The acting was surprisingly good (why was I surprised?) I was not one bit disappointed in the movie and can’t wait to see his next movie. Maybe we have another Mormon director in the same league with Kieth Merrill! Yea! The time has come! –Pamela Jensen
“When I saw God’s Army I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would this be like a seminary film where I was supposed to learn something? I soon learned it was about real people, only unlike most movies today, these were people I recognized-people like me. I went with my mission-age boyfriend, and we both laughed and cried during the film. I I really felt like a knew the people by the end of the show. It’s the best film I’ve seen in a long, long time.” –Rachel Proctor, age 17
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.