The Common Good

"Courageous": A Sermon Wrapped in a Movie

courageous-poster-ec6b2A blockbuster-style feature-length movie made by a church?

I have to admit, as a Brit, this concept baffled me, but it also piqued my interest.

As I did my research, I quickly realized that in the United States at least, such a phenomenon is not altogether uncommon.

Courageous, the fourth film made by Georgia's Sherwood Baptist Church, is the story of four police officers in rural Georgia struggling to balance demanding jobs with their personal lives as fathers, husbands, and sons.

Writer/director/producer (and associate minister at Sherwood Baptist) Alex Kendrick plays the protagonist, Adam, a father of two who struggles to make time for his children, Emily and Dylan. Adam seems to idolize his daughter, Emily, while he remains alienated from his son, Dylan (played with great maturity and a welcome understatement by Rusty Martin.)

Adam's colleagues have their own struggles as sons and fathers. Nathan (Ken Bevel), abandoned by his father before he was born, is the most outspoken of the four in his belief that an absent father inevitably leads a child down a difficult road. Shane (Kevin Downes), Adam's best friend and colleague, is the son of a divorced couple and, divorced himself, must share custody of his son with his ex-wife. He worries that he doesn't have enough time to be the kind of father he should be and how that might adversely affect his relationship with his child. Rounding out the quartet is David (Ben Davies), the young rookie, who is surely too young and naïve to be a father himself, and plays the devil's advocate to the older three police officers' gung-ho father routine. The four cops also befriend a local day-laborer named Javier, who desperately wants to live up to his own high expectations for himself as father and provider even as he struggles to put food on the table for his family.

After tragedy hits this close-knit group of men, Adam resolves to step up as a father and all five men sign a formal "resolution," committing to being the best husbands and fathers they can be. Each man is challenged in different ways by this, with varying degrees of success in their attempts to improve relationships with their children.

You've probably noticed that I've used the words 'man' and 'men' a lot so far. The film's major flaw is its unrelenting message that families need fathers, a message so heavy-handed that the role of mothers in the family dynamic is all but ignored entirely. The wives and mothers of Courageous are, sadly, two-dimensional characters, employed as little more than sounding boards for the profound musings of their courageous husbands.

The deficit of well-rounded, believable performances in Courageous is not limited only to its female characters. In a reference that likely will be lost on 90 percent of the film's target audience, Nathan, an African-American police officer, has a line that is almost identical to one uttered by Danny Glover's character in Lethal Weapon, when he declares that he's "getting too old for this."

In all honestly, the moment I heard this line, the film lost me. Whether it was intentional or not, having one black cop character regurgitating the words of another didn't sit right with me. Similarly, the film's Latino character, Javier, too often was played for laughs - the "jolly Hispanic" comic relief of the movie, which limited the extent to which I could engage with his character in more serious moments. To its credit, the film is genuinely funny. Laugh-out-loud funny. From Adam accidentally telling his sheriff that he loves him, to a play on the famous "Who's on First" sketch -- the film isn't lacking in laughs.

Unfortunately, that couldn't redeem it from itself. At so many points, Courageous felt terribly hackneyed. From the faux manly banter that permeates the dialogue to the "strong man getting in touch with his emotions" scenes, the film doesn't say much that is new, interesting, or remotely revolutionary. The climactic shoot-out between the officers and the local drug dealers is labored and clichéd, when it very easily could have been a gripping scene.

The film also tried to deal with gang culture and drugs, and these sub-plots took away from what was good about this movie. The tragedy that sits at the heart of this film was a compelling story in itself, and yet the story quickly moved on to accommodate all of these other sub-plots. I feel like a movie about that central tragedy would have been far more engrossing than the one I watched.

Obviously there is a message filmmakers wanted the audience to take away with them after viewing Courageous. Unfortunately I don't think it worked with me. If people want to see a cop movie, there are plenty of better movies on offer. And to be honest, right now there are a number of films in the theater right now that tackle issues of faith in a much more intriguing fashion. Martin Sheen on a pilgrimage? Gerard Butler as a Machine Gun Preacher? These films grab my attention in a way that Courageous could not.

This was not so much a movie as a (very long) sermon. In fact, it's a sermon that actually culminates in a sermon, as Kendrick's character spells out what he has learned in a message delivered to his church congregation.

Despite its well-meaning intentions, Courageous fails to say anything new about fatherhood, family, faith or anything else, for that matter. The few funny or moving scenes are surrounded by clunky acting, overly-moralistic dialogue, and a plot that is trying to be three movies in one -- none of them terribly believable.

Every scene was presented as a parable. Unfortunately these parables fall far short of those told by Jesus, and end up serving as a vivid reminder that Courageous is a film made by Christians, for Christians -- a stilted, self-indulgent sermon preached entirely to the proverbial choir.

Jack Palmer is a communications associate for Sojourners.

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