“Courageous” Lacks Artistry and Preaches to the Choir

This is part of a series of articles I will be publishing this week on “Courageous.” A rhetorical critique will come out later this week as well as critique about the type of Christian associations the Kendricks have choose to align with.

One star for decent action sequences and being better than my expectations (although they were incredibly low when I went to see it).

The Kendrick brothers new movie Courageous is suspiciously similar to the 2004 film Crash, except that it’s a very poor knockoff. Running at 2 hours and 10 minutes, the film should have been a good half hour shorter. However, I guess the filmmakers thought by inserting an exciting chase scene in the beginning, middle, and end of the film that it would be enough to keep the audience engaged.

The plot revolves around the lives for four cops and one construction worker who form an unlikely friendship. Together these men go through trials in both their professional and personal lives. Yet, unlike Crash, which

"Courageous" a Sherwood Pictures film

manages to weave together multiple plots and characters with skill, the Kendrick’s film leaves lose ends and undeveloped characters.  Additionally, the film is too heavy on sermons and too light on substantial dialogue or plot development.  In their attempt to create a diverse group of actors that bridge multiple cultures and social issues the film falls into the age-old problem of stereotyping.

We have Javier Martinez (Robert Amya), the blue-collar construction Latino worker with a strong accent.  Then there is the young deputy David Thomson (Ben Davies) whose only plot point is that he’s one of the youngest men on the police force and about half through the film we find out he knocked up a cheerleader in college and left her to raise their daughter by herself. He encouraged her to get an abortion, but instead she chose to keep the baby –making her the “courageous” one in the relationship. However, even that relationship falls into stereotypes. We see her later as a single mother who works as a waitress and lives in a trailer. Finally, there is Nathan Hayes (Ken Bevel), the African-American cop, and newbie on the police force. Nathan is by far the most dynamic actor out of the main cast. The dialogue between he and his wife Kayla (Eleanor Brown) is witty and their marriage the most stable. Together they handle conflicts that arise with their children. Yet, the Kendricks can’t allow Nathan’s character to remain stereotype free. No, we have to throw in the fact that Nathan never knew his dad who had six children with five different women.

Over the past decade or two evangelical Christians have tried to “take back” the film industry by producing counter-cultural films that are supposed to be both entertaining and educational.  Too often, as is the case with the Kendrick film, the movies fall short of having an actual plot and fill in the holes with random, awkward moments of preaching.  A good story is always driven by action, by music that relates to the plot, by witty, clever dialogue and finally by showing and not preaching. An example of where the Kendricks go wrong is in a scene between the main character Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick) and his son Dylan (Rusty Martin, Jr.). They are out running together and stop mid-run for Adam to preach to his son about standing firm in his faith and not being scared to stand alone for what he believes. Dylan listens intently and then they start running again. Not only is the scene melodramatic and sappy, but it’s unrealistic. No one stops mid run for a heart-to-heart with their running companion. You either are in good enough shape to run and talk at the same time (which Adam wasn’t) or you wait until after the run and chat over Gatorade. This is only one of many such scenes that could have been cut.

The numerous heart to heart backyard male bonding sessions over steak and pop are drawn out. The sheriff preaching a sermon to his forces about absentee fathers early in the film and encouraging his staff to go home and take care of their families isn’t realistic and unnecessary. The film illustrates this point again and again through various scenes. The audience doesn’t need a sermon about the affects of an absentee parent at least three times during the film. Show it to us; don’t tell us.

Finally, the film is a thinly veiled attempt at commercialization. While it was branded as an “outreach event” for churches, the film’s target audience is clearly white, middle class evangelicals who will say “Amen” when they watch the film. If it was really was meant for outreach then the Kendricks (who after two other semi-successful Christian films have plenty of connections) should have pushed for donors to cover the production and distribution costs and offered the video free online or on DVD to churches to screen on their own. The price of an admission ticket at the local theater is not something everyone can afford.

Several scenes in the film were clearly marketing products associated with the film. Beautifully framed covenants for men to sign, pledging to be good fathers, are displayed on a table prior to the men’s commitment ceremony. You, too, can own one of these framed resolutions to hang prominently in your home for around $60 from www.outreach.com. If the resolution seems a bit pricy then perhaps your church will want to spend money and buy the “Living Courageously” Bible study kit. Each book is around $10 and the teacher’s kit is $17 on Amazon. There is also a companion novel from the film and a soundtrack. Nothing is free. If this film is meant to be an outreach tool, it’s an outreach tool for the middle class and wealthy. As usual, evangelical society has produced just another film that preaches to the choir and will be thrown into the church library as “acceptable” family entertainment for years to come. Heaven forbid we learn how to craft an actual artistic film that can present a moral message in the subtle, complex style of C..S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. But wait, C.S. Lewis was Anglican and Tolkien was a Catholic. Maybe it’s just not in the evangelical DNA to understand that there is more to making a good film than a sermon.

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5 thoughts on ““Courageous” Lacks Artistry and Preaches to the Choir

  1. I haven’t seen this movie yet. I’ve only seen the Kendricks’ “Facing the Giants,” and while I liked parts of the movie and showed it to the teens at my church, I was bothered by the suggestion that infertility and lack of confidence may be linked.

    I respectfully disagree with one point of your review: “If it was really was meant for outreach then the Kendricks (who after two other semi-successful Christian films have plenty of connections) should have pushed for donors to cover the production and distribution costs and offered the video free online or on DVD to churches to screen on their own. The price of an admission ticket at the local theater is not something everyone can afford.”

    I think people outside the church are more likely to see a movie that requires a ticket than if the church held a free screening at a theater or a church building, or if the movie appeared for free online. This movie’s box office success makes it more likely to attract attentionoutside the church. This is a big improvement over the Billy Graham films of my youth that only were shown once or twice at special screenings in theaters and not treated like other movies. With this film’s success in theaters, it’s more likely to land at a local Redbox where families can select it for a low cost.

    My late mentor Bob Briner, author of “Roaring Lambs,” likely would share concerns about artistic quality, but I think he would celebrate the fact that “Courageous” is appearing in theaters and beating bigger-budget competition. He was concerned that instead of creating movies, evangelical Christians spent their time boycotting Hollywood and complaining about offensive portions of movies. While not perfect, the Kendricks’ films have brought Briner’s vision closer to reality.

    I look forward to your additional posts exploring other issues in the film.

  2. HI Jeff,

    Thank you for your comments. I don’t have a problem with Christians being able to compete and create films of artistic quality worthy of a big cinema showing. I also really love Bob Briner’s book “Roaring Lambs” and have taken the message of that book to heart. My biggest concern, which I will address in my next post, is that the film has subtle themes of male headship and wives sitting in the background instead of sharing family leadership responsibilities and some of the ethnic stereotypes are incredibly problematic. As an outreach director at my local church, I don’t feel comfortable showing this film to people outside the church.

    Christians should be producing films that are released on a wide scale in theaters, but let’s not market it as “outreach.” It’s it’s a quality production it will speak for itself and draw people in because of it’s amazing quality. I often feel that we depend on churches too much to promote Christian art instead of striving to produce something of artistic merit that can bridge the secular/Christian divide.

  3. You said,

    “The audience doesn’t need a sermon about the affects of an absentee parent at least three times during the film. Show it to us; don’t tell us.”

    I disagree. Many of the Christian men I work with admit to falling short of their responsibilities as a fatherly example and a faithful husband. The divorce rate in the church is pacing the unchurched which makes the father absent at key times during a child’s growth.

    “Free DVDs and free church wide events” can work, but let me share my experience from the premier weekend. Our ministry had purchased a block of 75 tickets discounted to $5.50. Our intention was to give away the tickets to anyone who could not afford to attend the movie, Courageous. The theater was ‘sold out’ yet we had at least 15 free tickets that were never picked up. This saddens me, because I wanted to help so many people – yet at least 15 refused my offer. Many people put less value into something free (like Salvation) because their internal feeling is there are strings attached or the quality is poor.

    This movie will be in churches (for free) by this time in 2012 and I doubt if any venue will be packed with anxious viewers or poor people looking for some inexpensive entertainment with a message.

    Thank you for letting me share.

  4. I do not wish to engage in debate with readers of my blog who I know come from a very different theological interpretation than I do. I also do not want anyone to post comments that are negative, attacking or derogatory towards the comments of others or posts made on this blog. I understand there is a difference of opinion. However, the point of this blog is to encourage thoughtful reflection on various mainstream evangelical ideas and rhetoric. I hope what I write spurs people to do further research on their own.

    I have not allowed several comments for this post (as I note in my “about” section – I am the moderator and reserve the right to restrict comments). Yet, I feel I need to address a couple comments that were too negative to post:

    1) One post said that Jesus never taught women and children and only prepared men to lead. Where in the Bible does it say this? When I read through the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) I find the opposite. Here are a few examples:

    Luke 10:38-41 – Jesus is teaching at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazrus. Mary is listening to Jesus instruction instead of working in the kitchen and Jesus tells her to say when Martha wants her help. He has no problem with a woman being taught the same things he is teaching his male disciples.

    Matthew 14:13-18 – Jesus is teaching to a large crowd and feeds 5,000 men (not including women and children) from five loaves of bread and two fish. The fact that Matthew notes that women and children were present illustrates that Jesus WAS teaching everyone, not just men.

    John 20:1-18 – Jesus is raised from the dead and the first person to see him alive is Mary Magdalene. When she see Jesus she calls him “ Rabboni (teacher)” v.16. John continually illustrates that Jesus sought to teach and train women for ministry. Clearly Mary is a disciple and is given the privilege of going back and telling the men that Jesus is risen.

    I could go on and note other examples in Acts, but I don’t want to draw this out. Secondly, as much as we might not like to admit this – we are reading a translation of the Bible. The Bible was written in Greek and Hebrew. It was not written in English and some words do not translate the same into English as they do in the original language. Until you can prove to me in Greek that Jesus did not believe women should and were capable of serving in equality alongside men, you don’t have a case.

    2) The second question that I have had asked in the comments section several times is an accusation that my interpretation is not Biblical. People are welcome to this idea. Yet, please remember I am upfront in noting I write from a Wesleyan, egalitarian perspective. If you don’t agree with that it’s fine. That’s your prerogative, but please respect my position and post comments that are not a personal attack. We have different denominations for a reason and there is not enough commentary out there from a Wesleyan, egalitarian perspective. I am just trying to fill a gap.

  5. I enjoyed and applaud your review.
    While I may mildly disagree with some points, on whole I too think this movie vastly misses the mark as you well pointed out.

    While not from a Wesleyan viewpoint/background, I spent many years in Evangelical Churches and now fall somewhere in between in my views (which are my views & Biblical interpretations, I am NOT saying I have it figured out).

    After spending many years in an Evangelical church I and my family have seen all too well the maybe well intentioned, but sometimes destructive teaching that can go on in these churches (please however do not take this as an attack on these churches, rather my experience and how it relates to this movie).
    With this said, I found the unrealistic preaching personally and emotionally harmful setting up a viewer to believe that these actions will result in these positive, while in my experience it resulted in negative compounded upon negative.

    The end result?? I left seeing the movie emotionally hurt and feeling once again like a failure, is this the intention of the writers producers? I doubt it, but they really need to do a better job with their plots and consider reality and other views of scripture.

    See my blog post:
    http://carl-my-thoughts.blogspot.com/2012/01/courageous-movie-review_23.html

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