"Facing the Giants" is a Christian movie, and by that I don't mean that it's simply a movie Christians can watch because it contains no vulgarity, no nudity, no violence (other than the gridiron kind), no disrespectful behavior, and no affronts to God. That's all true, but it's a Christian film mostly because of its unapologetic, constant messaging.
"Facing the Giants" is a film that was made to win converts, but it's about as subtle as a gaggle of missionaries beating on your front door. If you happen to miss church one Sunday morning, you can pop this football film in as an NFL warm-up and still get plenty of preaching. It's made by the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia--which in itself is a fascinating story. These are the folks who created "Flywheel" (2003) on a budget of $20,000, a prayed-for digital camera, and actors drawn totally from the congregation. It could have been an amateur-hour disaster, but "Flywheel" ended up being a respectable indie flick. The idea came when Sherwood's senior pastor read a survey that said movies influence this generation more than churches. And so they began kicking around the idea of making a movie. Alex Kendrick, the pastor in charge of media (yes, they're on television), co-wrote a script with his brother, Stephen, who's also a pastor there (it's a BIG church). Alex prayed for the idea, and it came to him after he bought a car: "What if a minister was conned at a car dealer and then prayed, Lord, treat him like he treated me"? They prayed for equipment and Alex, who decided to play used car dealer Jay Austin, prayed for who in the congregation to tap for parts. He decided that his movie wife should be a married parishioner who was pregnant at the time, and they all prayed that she wouldn't be put on bed-rest as happened with her first pregnancy. A member of the congregation lent his used car lot for the project, they wrote 30 scenes, and somehow it worked.
If only "Facing the Giants" were a film first and a ministry tool second. While the message is heartfelt, there are times when you almost want to shoot the messenger. I didn't feel as preached-to watching "Flywheel" as I did watching "Facing the Giants." Maybe that's because in "Flywheel" when a character bent a knee or laid hands on a head to pray, it felt as if we were watching a docudrama--an honest look at the daily lives of people who live their beliefs and lead different lives from many of us. But those moments come with much more regularity in "Facing the Giants," so much so that this Christian football version of "Hoosiers" feels more like propaganda than an honest film with an honest message. It starts out innocently enough, but by the end of the second act you feel as if you're driving down the highway on a country road and the sermons are hitting the windshield like a plague of locusts.
I'll give them this, though: In every way, "Facing the Giants" feels like a slicker, better-directed and better-acted film than the congregation's first effort. Chalk part of that up to five times the money raised by the congregation this time, and you can see the difference in production values. With Sony involved from the very beginning--a coup that this church can be proud of--the film enjoyed wide distribution and quality control.
But it's the usual suspects again, with Alex Kendrick writing, directing, and starring as he did with "Flywheel." Here he's Grant Taylor, head football coach of Shiloh Christian Academy high school, and congregation member Tracy Goode returns as Kendrick's sidekick. This time Goode plays assistant coach Brady Owens, who ends up doing a running comedy schtick with the other assistant coach, J.T. Hawkins Jr. (Chris Willis). And Shannen Fields, who did a walk-on as a customer in "Flywheel," gets bumped up to female lead. She plays Taylor's wife, Brooke, and does a decent job of it. So do all of these folks, especially considering that they all have day jobs and none of them apparently have union cards. There's much to praise about their efforts, because "Facing the Giants" plays like a full-fledged Hollywood film . . . though a flawed one.
Part of the problem is familiarity. Since David and Goliath, the underdog story has been a mainstay. It's what you do with it that counts, and Kendrick's script is pretty obvious. The soaring Eagles go up against the Giants in a football showdown, with David their kicker who puts the "rock" right between the uprights when it counts. And that's no spoiler. If you've seen films like this, you know the outcome. The pleasure is always in the journey. And like "Hoosiers," we see the full season's journey, with montages of sports page clippings and game footage moving us forward.
But the other problem with this film is that Kendrick and his co-writer brother Stephen lay it on so thick. The entire first act is spent showing how rotten Coach Taylor's life is: he's on a six-year losing streak in six seasons as head coach, he's on a four-year losing streak in the making-babies department, his car keeps dying on him, the house has an unidentifiable stench, one appliance after another breaks, his best player defects to another team, and to top it all off, he overhears some boosters calling for his ouster, and one of his assistants may be a Judas. I mean, why not go the full route and have his favorite hunting dog get hit by a train, his father get Alzheimer's, the IRS send him a notification of audit, a meteor crash through their roof, and Sears Roebuck mistakenly ship him sackcloth and ashes instead of that snappy suit he ordered?
What's worse, is that the minute Coach Taylor takes a knee and puts everything in Jesus' hands and asks for a sign, the very next day he gets one. A congregation member tells him he felt God wanted him to tell the beleaguered coach to "bloom where he is."
"God will send the rain when he's ready. You need to prepare your field to receive it," he's told. And so he finds new life and new inspiration. He starts to expect more out of himself and his players, and in the film's finest scene he inspires (bullies?) a team leader (Jason McLeod) to crawl the length of a football field with another player on his back, blindfolded.
But the payoff comes too quickly. Suddenly everything that was wrong becomes right once Coach Taylor re-discovers God. And I mean everything. It all feels a little too facile. Now, if you've stayed with me this long you're probably thinking that I'm a heathen who's predisposed to hate Christian films, but I'm not. I've felt the hand of God in my life on a number occasions. And yes, when I've reached my limit and prayed for relief, that relief came. But not all problems vanish, and I can't help but wonder if Kendrick is really setting people up for a big fall. As far as I can tell, God isn't a quick fix. And while we're on the subject, who can know the mind of God? Or the gender, for that matter? I personally believe in God but have a hard time with organized religion because of their insistence on dogma and their dogged religious ethnocentricity. In John 14:02, Jesus reportedly said, "In my Father's house are many rooms," and that means there's room for many religions and many ways to get to heaven. I believe that, and such pluralism is at odds with any religion that purports to be the only way to heaven.
The other thing that makes me uncomfortable in this film is the God-talk. To me, faith is a private matter, and I can't help but think of the Pharisees in the Bible who prayed loudly in public so that everyone could see how devout they were. At times, this felt like a Pharisee movie to me. And yet, the message itself was such that it reminds you that God can and will help if you let him. I just can't help but think that there's a happy medium between the streetcorner praying that occurs in this film and the Biblical injunction that we're not supposed to hide our lights under a bushel, and that we're to be fishers of men. Maybe Kendrick will find that happy medium in future films. And maybe he'll back off of the "written by, directed by, starring Alex Kendrick" model that he's been following. Why not give others a chance? As a director, Kendrick tends to be a pastor, but there are still times when he has a good eye for a frame and a good sense of a scene. If he lightens up a bit and realizes that a little proselytizing goes a long way, he'll be all right. And his acting is actually pretty decent. It's the script where he could use some help, and I hope he farms it out next time, because "Facing the Giants" operates in the cinema verite tradition part of the time, while lapsing into uncomfortable melodrama the rest of the time. Is it moving? Yes. Is it well done? For the most part, yes. But you can never escape the feeling of being at the bottom of a scrimmage when it's all over. And when you think back to the big game, it's a little jarring to recall that Shiloh Christian Academy had zero black players. Are you kidding me? Physician, heal thyself!
"Facing the Giants" is rated PG for "some thematic elements," which I assume means talk of Coach Taylor's "little guys" not being able to swim upstream and other pregnancy/infertility references. It was released on Blu-ray this month, along with the BD of "Fireproof," the ministry's third film, about a firefighter.
As I said, the production values are good, and this was filmed using a digital camera. But the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer looks a little soft in spots, and shooting with a digital camera doesn't guarantee a grain-free surface. Night sequences particularly suffer, with clarity taking a hit. There's a little atmospheric grain in the outdoor shots, and colors tend to run up and down the saturation scale, depending on the lighting. The film is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
A Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Lossless is the featured audio, in English, French, or Portuguese, with an additional option in Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. But there's really not much of a drop-off from the Lossless to the lossy. Everything is a little front-centric and sonically flat. Highs don't ring, and the lows have no rumble. There's surround, but it's in select scenes. You mostly notice it with the constant musical soundtrack that plays in the background--Christian music, of course.
The two Kendricks appear on a full-length commentary track in which they deliver pretty much what you'd expect. They talk about how things came together, the role that faith and God played in the film, and yes, how they shot certain scenes. Alex throws in what he learned in the process thus far, and it's clear he's a quick study.
In addition, there's an uncommonly long blooper reel (just over 11 minutes) and 13 deleted scenes, introduced by the director. That's more than we get from most filmmakers, and it makes you wonder to what degree it's the result of amateurs working with amateurs. Then there's a very brief (seven minutes) behind-the-scenes making-of featurette that gives you the usual cast interview clips mixed with behind-the-scenes footage and segments from "Facing the Giants." And finally, there's a music video ("With You") and a three-minute chat that Alex Kendrick has with Mark Richt, the coach of the University of Georgia football team. The latter I was happy to see, because Richt had a cameo in the film, and I knew he was supposed to be famous but had no idea who he might be.
And for those who care, "Facing the Giants" is BD-Live enabled.
For a Christian film, "Facing the Giants" isn't bad. The production values and pacing are good, and the script and performances are adequate. If it weren't so preachy I'd be tempted to give it a seven out of 10. But Kendrick needs to learn that didacticism isn't a film aesthetic.