Saturday, October 22, 2011

My Review of "Courageous"

Before I get into my review in detail, it goes without saying that the message and emphasis of Courageous is sorely needed. Biblical manhood is at the core of God’s plan for the family, the church, and the world. From the day God created Adam and commanded him concerning the Tree before the woman was created, God has intended for men to lead responsibly and lovingly.
I commend Sherwood Films for their ongoing emphasis in this area. Each of the four films they have produced has addressed the area of Biblical manhood in some way:
  • Flywheel – Biblical manhood, primarily in the realm of work integrity and family priorities.
  • Facing the Giants – Biblical leadership which encourages obedience and faith in challenging times.
  • Fireproof – Biblical manhood, primarily in the realm of being a godly husband.
  • Courageous – Biblical manhood, primarily in the realm of being a godly father.
Each film hits a key area, and without reservation I hope that Sherwood Baptist Church continues to make such films of the same character and focus.

What I Did Not Like About “Courageous”

Even though I liked the film, I do not think that Courageous came close to the other Sherwood films for many reasons:
  1. The film was painfully predictable. It seemed to be possible to guess the outcome of most plots as soon as they were revealed in the film. I consider this a result of two forms of previous exposure.
    First, I had seen (several times, at least) the three films that Sherwood Films had previously produced. Much of the plot structure mirrored that of previous films. For example, the poor father who is focused on work and uninvolved with his children who becomes the good father reflects the plot in Flywheel. (Courageous, in many ways, is Flywheel with the key person recast as a police officer rather than a car salesman.) The formal commitment for fatherhood in Courageous is unmistakably a copy of the 40-Day Love Dare adventure. There were a few fresh plot ideas in the film, but not many.
    Second, the film was wholly predictable because I had viewed a handful of clips and the trailer propagated by relentless promotion of the makers of the film. Though some clips might be helpful to generate interest, many of the clips (including the trailer) were spoilers in their own right. Before I ever saw the film, I had viewed the first scene completely, I had viewed the proposal of the formal commitment to fatherhood, I had seen the key actor running with his son, and I had seen the single father handing a gift to his daughter (the latter was in the trailer). There was no surprise left in the movie. Maybe take a hint from Apple and keep the good parts secret until show day. Give hints, but don’t give away the story. Lost was the first impression impact that the film could have had. I doubt if I was the only viewer with this impression.
  2. The film was choppy, and just didn’t seem to flow well. I heard this from several viewers. Courageous had many good points and scenes, but they just didn’t fit together smoothly like they had in previous films. Maybe they just had to cut too many parts to keep it the right length for it all to make sense. (I remember seeing The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and I was baffled, never having read the book. I continually had to ask my son, who had read the series many times, for explanation. It wasn’t until the extra 40 minutes was added in later that the story made sense to me on its own.) Regardless, it felt rushed as it hurried through to the resolutions of the plots.
  3. The film seemed to eek along at times. I know this sounds contradictory to my last point, but at least for one scene (in the home of the key actor after a tragic event) it seemed to take forever to move on. I rarely get impatient while watching a film. I did for this scene. Maybe the producers could have sped this up some and left in some other scenes for better flow.
  4. The film seems to be another setup for merchandising products (in addition to delivering its message). I honestly do not know where to draw the line here. I’m fine with paying for things. However, would it not be possible to flood the world with free tools that encourage implementation, rather than generating for-purchase helps? ( Why not offer free PDFs of tools on the internet, if the goal is to promote the message?
  5. The film was hard to “get into.” Some viewers never “get into” a film. I am one that gets engaged and fully absorbed into a good story (please don’t talk while I’m watching!) However, I could not get engaged with this film. I kept looking at it from the outside, knowing I was watching a film, rather than becoming part of it. This unusual phenomenon was true for at least three reasons:
    First, having the key actor playing a key role that was very similar to his other two roles. Alex Kendrick is an amazing actor. It is just hard to see him playing essentially the same part over and over again (Flywheel and Facing the Giants). In addition, he’s constantly being interviewed (as himself), so he is so familiar that I cannot pretend he’s in character. So far, that hasn’t happened regarding Ken Bevel (key actor in Fireproof and Courageous), but it might.
    Second, Sherwood Films uses former key actors in “extras” scenes. You go from following the plot to “Hey, isn’t that the father who was in the wheelchair in Facing the Giants?” or “There is Stephen Kendrick in the crowd.” One of the most potentially impacting scenes (the church scene where Alex Kendrick’s character challenges the men) was ruined by this. The message and the atmosphere trying to be created was fully lost (for me) because of all the character extras that were shown in the congregation. I went from listening to Alex’s speech to looking to see who else was in the audience that I recognized. I found several. (This obviously would be of no impact to those who have never viewed other Sherwood films.) I would eliminate focusing in on key actors from previous films when they function as extras. Keep the message and plot central by eliminating unnecessary distractions.
    Third, Sherwood Films continued its practice of secret repeats. Again, if you have never viewed a Sherwood film and the extras that come on the DVDs, then you may not know or care about these purposefully placed quirks. However, if you have viewed the DVDs and extras, these can be distracting. From the “Jay Austin Motors” license plate to the cereal box (both used in every film to date), these types of things, though cute and harmless traditions, caused me to bounce from being engaged by the film’s plot to looking for these quirks and think "I'm watching a production." At least the “evil coach” of the Giants didn’t have a lollipop in his mouth this time (that I saw, anyway).
  6. This film had excessive hype to the point of complete overkill. Now maybe this is true because I “liked” Courageous on Facebook (and the incredible promotion that came with that). However, if there is any indication, it has to be the most talked about, most promoted, most prayed for movie ever produced. That might lead you to give a hearty “Amen.” To me, I ask, does such a production live up to the incessant hype / advertising? And should all this focus be placed on one movie? Should we not “hype” our local churches, our church leaders and workers more aggressively than a movie? Is it not the hearing and enduring of sound doctrine that ultimately grows a believer (2 Tim 4:1-4)?
    Also, how did people live for God before such movies or productions? Are we developing movie-emotion prompted living, instead of the consistent reading, study, and preaching of the Word of God? Can we not live for God without a movie to prompt us to do so? Do we need some emotion-laden movie to make us live as Christian men and women? Is the Word of God no longer effective? If not, we should be looking for the reason why the Word is not effective in our lives, rather than hoping a movie makes the life-changing difference the hype seems to indicate that it will. My theory is that people largely have abandoned reading and studying (and preaching) the Word of God. Such a movie makes a profound noise in a truth vacuum, and is incredibly delicious to the spiritually underfed.
What I Liked About “Courageous”

Courageous did get several things right. Though not equal in message or flow to the previous Sherwood Films productions, it did meet or surpass them in several ways:
  1. Technically, this is undeniably the most professional production thus far. The shots and special effects were superior to any film previously produced by Sherwood.
    (I’m not sure that the professional production makes that much difference. The message and flow seem to be the key with me. I was more profoundly moved by Flywheel than Courageous, and there are miles of technical improvements between the two.)
  2. The Kendrick brothers always weave great amounts of humor into their movies. You go from crying to laughing in most of their movies because of their ability to connect. Courageous reflects some of the same skill. The “I love you” phone call sub-plot in this film is just one example of the wit that keeps you chuckling throughout the movie.
  3. Courageous has by far the clearest Gospel presentation of any Sherwood Film to date. Though I wonder how many unsaved view the Sherwood Films, I am sure there are a good number all along the life of the production, and they need to hear the Gospel in this venue. I am extremely glad that they have not only refused to compromise this eternally important part of their movie script, but also that they have increased the clarity and accuracy of the Gospel presentation in this film over any of the previous films.
  4. Next to the very clear, bold Gospel presentation, the best thing about the movie is the extremely bold challenges for men to be men, including some that much of the Christian world would think old-fashioned or out-dated, but are still desperately needed today.
    I give top kudos to this film for encouraging fathers to be the protector and advisor for their daughters when they are being sought after by potential suitors. That message alone, if heeded, by fathers and daughters, could prevent countless broken marriages, violated purity, and lifelong heartache of rapidly made and soon lost relationships.
    The movie further encourages fathers to spend time with their children (especially teens) by involving themselves in those things which interest their children. Probably the key here is developing common interests from the start, but the movie gets the point across.
    Two additional bold challenges impressed me. One was the willingness of a father in the movie to mentor and help another troubled teen that had no father - an important element in Christian living (James 1:27). Also, the movie did not focus on perfect men. It focused on men from all levels of success and failure, from a father distant from his teen son, to a father who grew up without a good father, to a father who had never met his out-of-wedlock daughter. The movie touches every man in every situation, including a father who fails in a big way with big life-changing consequences.
    Somewhat like Fireproof, the movie Courageous does present a formal commitment to being a good father (something you sign and hang on your wall) that accompanies a formal ceremony. Both are good ideas which I would encourage when it fits. However, I would suggest that neither is required to be a good father, or to encourage men to step up to Biblical fatherhood. The formality might give an awkward bar that is too high for some, but who still would step up to Biblical manhood if challenged to do so in other ways.
Final Thoughts

For Christians, I have several general exhortations:
  1. Don’t wait for or rely upon a movie to move you to live for God. Be faithful in reading the Word of God daily, and learning from godly, Bible-studying shepherds at your local Bible-believing assembly. Let the Word of God do its work in you daily, not just every three years when a movie is released.
  2. Don’t make such a big deal about movies that the living Word of God which changes lives is diminished in the eyes of believers and unbelievers. Movies should encourage and enforce Bible study, not replace it.
  3. Don’t put such an emphasis on a movie as to miss the power of the Word of God. Does the Christian world rotate around the production of one movie? You can be all that God wants to you be without ever, ever watching a single movie. (2 Pet 1:2-8)
As long as Sherwood Films produces works as they have thus far, I will promote them. Support their theatre showings. Buy their DVDs and watch them regularly. Give them as gifts to impact the lives of others in an entertaining way. I have been blessed and challenged by their stories, their presentations, and even their processes (church-based, and volunteer-driven). My hope is that they do not lose what they have in the pursuit of reaching more, and that they continue to embrace the fact that the preaching of the Word is the primary means of equipping and growing believers, and the making of movies is a small tool compared to the teaching of God’s Word. – KES