When I first started this blog, I laid out a bunch of boring rules that limited what movies I would cover. One genre that I didn’t mention but always kept in the back of my mind was the ever-popular Christian genre. I don’t have any particular views about religion besides ‘no, thanks’ but the Christian film genre in itself is a beacon of ridiculousness that transcends all dogma. Movies like Fireproof and the Left Behind saga are hilarious and campy and, most importantly, already frequent fodder for the type of shit that goes down here at Why Does It HQ. Therefore, I decided that that I wouldn’t touch Christian films with a ten foot pole. Besides, the question is a no brainer. Why does it exist? Because Christians.
All that changed in one fell swoop and you are now faced with reading about Billy: The Early Years, a heartfelt biopic of super-evangelist Billy Graham directed by former heartthrob Robby Benson. What made me change my mind, you ask? Why would I risk fucking with well-established laws for one little movie? The answer is a two-parter, really. The first answer is that it features the very first starring role of one Armie Hammer, best known as the Winkelvoss twins from Fincher’s The Social Network and serious contender to roles in every bankable property currently in production. By all accounts, Hammer fought long and hard to land this role; now that he’s a hot, bankable star, he might fight hard to forget it. The second reason is certainly more serious: as I began writing this, we were less than 24 hours from the Rapture. That meant I needed to watch this damn thing and repent ASAP or else it would be impossible for me to shoot up into the sky and spend the rest of my life with other dorks while the sinners get to hang out with all of our pet animals. Of course, by the time this was set to go up, I would already be gallivanting up in the sky with Fred Phelps and his family of morons so I left detailed instructions for whoever may find a crumpled pile of my clothes (we do get to ascend naked, right?).
For a while, I confused Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. Together they’re probably the two most visible evangelists of the 20th century, but they’re actually fairly different. Falwell was a bigoted shithead who had horribly regressive views towards everything and spent his time shitting on awesome things like the Teletubbies and Penthouse Magazine. Graham, on the other hand, is pretty much apolitical and much more of the old school, pulpit-beating preacher tradition. He hung out with most presidents AND Johnny Cash and pretty much started to say dumb shit about people who weren’t white Bible-thumpers when he was in his late 80’s. Most people’s grandmas do that too and we don’t equate them with Jerry Falwell. I’ll take that to mean that as far as evangelists go, Billy Graham is pretty cool. Cool enough to get a heavily propagandistic biopic? Well…
As the title suggests, Billy: The Early Years focuses on Billy Graham’s formative years (there are currently no plans to release Billy: The Motown Years or Billy: B-Sides and Remixes) and structured around an interview with his old friend Charles Templeton (Martin Landau). Templeton speaks about his old friend from his deathbed, muttering at invisible figures and generally cutting a pretty pathetic figure. Billy’s life, he explains, was like a fairy tale. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, even. By the ten-minute mark, the film is already totally enamoured with boring-ass shorthand platitudes – although thankfully Templeton’s narration is only intermittent. Graham grew up a rosy-cheeked youth on a farm where he was obsessed with baseball and extremely wary of preachers and evangelists. As he so-subtly says himself, there are two things he’s never gonna be: an undertaker and a preacher. Dollars to donuts he’s gonna eat his words!
Every single Christian movie I’ve ever seen (and I’ll cop to not finishing too many of them) has been the same. The lead character is either a non-believer or a believer in crisis; they go through some sort of crisis of faith where they’re faced with a sinful situation. Here, Billy has heard from kids at school that travelling preachers are actually out to fleece the population and in fact are not the messengers of God. Billy’s smugness is some serious Christmas Carol-type non-believing; even though I’d tend to agree with him, his Bill Maher-type smugness almost got me to side with his fire-and-brimstone father on this one. Obviously movies like this one are quite literally preaching to the choir but I can’t help but think that maybe they’d get us godless hedonists to listen if the protagonists didn’t start out as incredible douchebags. Maybe the first sign of me getting raptured is my identification of the film’s depiction of god-hatin’ free-thinkin’ atheists as total chodes. Here’s hoping.
The film cuts back and forth between Hammer as Graham and Landau in his hospital bed and man oh man, Landau is chewing the scenery something fierce. I’ve no idea what Landau’s religious convictions are but I do know that he has had very low standards in his illustrious career. He approaches the role of the half-senile Templeton in exactly the same way he approached the similar role of the serial-killing preacher in the 1982 slasher Alone in the Dark: eyes bugged out, screaming at the top of his lungs and freezing dramatically in mid-sentence. It’s a Troma performance in a Lifetime movie. Landau is one of those work-is-work actors who’ll take any damn role but his presence in Billy: The Early Years is both completely incongruous and hilariously welcome.
When a traveling preacher comes to town, Billy decides to heed his father’s advice and go check it out for himself despite his misgivings about preachers. The preacher is having an old-timey revival in a tent with singing and dancing and pounding on a pulpit (it must be said that this is 1932 – I suppose that doesn’t count as old timey). The preacher starts yelling at Billy and telling him he has emptiness in his soul that can only be enlightened by Jesus. This is all it takes to make Billy Graham a believer. Thirty seconds of a fat dude screaming the same platitudes about Jesus that Graham’s dad just said and Graham is filled with so much doubt and crisis it could easily be mistaken for serious gastrointestinal trouble. Based on the preacher’s incisive analysis of Billy’s problems (basically, he sometimes is sad and/or confused), Billy decides to enrol in Bob Jones College.
After a brief spell as a traveling salesman, Graham goes off to preachin’ school. In order to impress a girl, he decides to try his hand at preaching. Nobody believes in him (especially not the janitor, who up and laughs at him; I assume he ain’t getting raptured either), least of all Billy himself. After many deliberations set to a jaunty banjo tune, he finally gets the nerve to go preach and LO AND BEHOLD… he sucks at it terribly. I’ve got to hand it to Robby Benson and everyone else behind Billy: The Early Years: I did not expect them to approach Billy’s period of pure suckage in a comedic way, complete with exaggerated responses and the aforementioned jaunty banjo tune. It’s pretty asynchronous with the film’s overall restrained, faintly reverent tone but it sure scores a point for originality.
After his best girl opts to fall in love with a weasel-like fellow who has better public-speaking skills rather than with him, Billy immediately stops sucking at preaching and becomes an ordained minister. He becomes obsessed with the most desirable girl at seminary, Ruth (Stefanie Butler) and eventually lands a date with her after passing her a note in the library (!). The date is successful and, although she has to quit school to tend to her sick sister, Billy and Ruth eventually get married. He hooks up with Chuck Templeton (pre-being Martin Landau, of course), has some kids, becomes president of a college and is soon on his way to being the old, peanut-like Billy Graham we’ve all grown to know and… be aware of.
Although I doubt he’ll brag about it on his reel, Armie Hammer is rather good as Graham. He can’t be any more convincing than the movie is (which is to say, not very) but he cuts an impressive figure on screen, even pre-Winkelvoss. His milk-fed, All-American good looks are well-suited to the gauzy, aw-shucks approach to Graham’s life and if nothing else, it’s completely hilarious to imagine David Fincher sitting in his office and studiously watching all of this CGI-background preaching and settling on Hammer as his final choice.
Despite the overall Christian-ness of pretty much everything, the film is very much in the mould of a (boring) non-Christian biopic. There’s not that much talk about God except when Graham is actually up there banging the pulpit and talking about God; the rest of the movie is pretty corny but Christians don’t own corny… yet. Billy: The Early Years has, however, a tragic flaw that transcends faith and religious belief: it’s got no conflict. Graham is convinced of the awesome power of God ten minutes in; he stops sucking at preaching (off-screen, to boot) after bombing once on-screen. The rest of it is basically just Billy Graham being awesome yet a totally normal Christian believer. Although it’s a smart move to focus the film on a limited period of his life considering the guy is nearly one hundred fucking years old, He convinces people (including Darryl, the world’s cleanest and fittest hobo) to accept God in about 30 seconds, saying nothing that anyone living in the South in the 40’s wouldn’t have heard before. He just doesn’t cut it as an interesting character unless you’re already sold on his love for God and his uncanny ability to scream about it. It’s not convincing and, thus, probably not going to save my life from being raptured. The film is pretty insistent that it takes about 30 seconds of platitudes to turn someone from smug atheist chode to crying, writhing believer; I heard those words, too. I’m not crying. Where’s my awakening, Robby Benson?
So why do I still exist?
We already know why it exists: Christians love their Christian shit. But the rapture is days old and yet I continue to thrive, unascended and fully-dressed. All this late-minute cramming has failed to count me among the saved. Granted, I didn’t see anyone ascend last Saturday… but Billy: The Early Years failed to make a convert out of me. As propaganda, it’s pretty toothless and unconvincing; as drama, it’s not much more than I could easily have gleaned from a quick look at Wikipedia. The final showdown between Graham and Templeton (now an agnostic douche, the only kind of antagonist the movie needs) is hardly befitting the thunderous, rapturous narration emanating from Landau. It`s inert in almost every single way. Surprisingly, Billy: The Early Years is one of the few explicitly Christian films that didn’t make its money back. In a world where the Kirk Cameron-led marital drama Fireproof was a must-see movie, Benson’s opus elicited a resounding ‘meh’.
If the choir couldn’t be preached to, what chance do I have?