Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Night of the Hunter -- false preachers, false gospel

Director: Charles Laughton, 1955. (NR)
"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them." (Matt. 7:15-20)
Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) reads these words from Scripture (in the KJV ) to a group of children as the opening credits roll. We don't know who this matronly woman is, though she looks like a Sunday School teacher. But she will appear again towards the end of the film. Yet, this warning frames the film, giving us a portent of things to come.

The hunter is Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a tall and handsome "preacher" whose knuckles are tattooed with LOVE on one hand and HATE on the other. This dichotomy perfectly describes this psychopathic Bluebeard, who professes a gospel of love but really brings a gospel of hate. He seeks lonely wealthy widows so he can marry and then kill them for their money, somehow believing he is doing God's will.

Robert Mitchum is at the top of his acting game here as the creepy killer. Charles Laughton, the great actor from the 30s-50s directed but had such a bad experience that this was his second and last attempt at directing. Yet, despite the poor critical and commercial reception at its release, this has aged well and is a spellbinding chiller that is suspenseful without resorting to violence and gore.

Early in the film Harry is in prison sharing a cell with killer Ben Harper (Peter Graves, from the TV series "Mission Impossible"). It is the Great Depression, and Ben stole $10,000 to feed his kids. That money is hidden and only his two young children John and Pearl know where it is. Even his wife Willa (Shelley Winters) has no idea. She thinks it is gone, thrown into the river. When Ben is hanged, Willa becomes the next widow on Harry's list.

When Harry comes to the small town where Willa lives, it is his sweet-talking and hymn-singing persona that wins him to the locals and to Willa, though John sees through his disguise. Not all who wear the collar are men of the cloth. Mrs Cooper's warnings are apropos. There are wolves in sheep's clothing out there waiting to deceive even the elect (Matt. 24:24). Such "preachers" are dangerous. We can know them by their fruit. They may sound good, even perfect, but such goodness must be put to the test. Is the fruit good? In Harry's case, all his fruit was bad, a string of dead bodies lying in his past.

After he has married Willa, Harry needs to get the secret of the hiding place from the children. But John's discernment keeps both his and Pearls' lips sealed. Behind closed doors Harry drops his mask. He is not the blessed peace-loving man of God others see him as. One scene is as chilling as the shower scene in Psycho. With the two kids hiding in the cellar, Harry croons, "I can hear you whisperin' children, so I know you're down there. I can feel myself gettin' awful mad. I'm out of patience children. I'm coming to find you." Then he calls out in a normal voice, "Chill. . . dren!" That long-drawn out word sends shivers down my spine. It evokes all the evil of Lucifer.

Harry is a twisted man. On his wedding night he tells Willa, his new bride, "Marriage to me represents the blending of two spirits in the sight of Heaven." Then focusing on the physical, her body, he tells her, "That body was meant for begettin' children. It was not meant for the lust of men!" To him, sex for pleasure is sinful, even in the context of the marriage bed. Ironically, in an early conversation with God, he recounts, "There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair" yet later is caught in the audience of an exotic-dancing club watching a dancer in lacy clothing.

Harry's theology of marriage is errant. God did not bring man and woman together just for procreation. Procreation and reproduction is one aspect of marriage (Gen. 1:28). But companionship and partnership is another (Gen. 2:18). Solomon paints a very clear picture of the beauty and joy of sex within the boundaries of wedlock in his wonderful Song of Solomon. Paul, addressing the topic of sex within marriage, tells the church at Corinth, "Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (1 Cor. 7:5). The writer of Hebrews also points out that Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure" (Heb. 13:4).

Indeed, Harry's whole belief system is a mess of self-deception. When asked what religion he preaches, he says, "The religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us." He claims to have negotiated a form of theology with God. But that is not for man to do. God has given us his Word and his gospel. We cannot create our own religion or theology and believe we have salvation, although many try. Harry reminds us a little of Jim Jones, who created his own cult following and them led them to drink the Kool-Aid to their own demise. Jones had his own theology, his own religion. His followers were "saved" in this man-made way. Harry's own religion led a number of women to their deaths at his hands. The end destination of all cults is man-made salvation, which is death.

Luke wrote, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Jesus will not work out a new religion with any of us. We must choose to accept his gospel and his salvation. Anything else is false religion peddled by false preachers . . . just like Harry.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Last King of Scotland -- corruption, power, hatred and love

Director: Kevin McDonald, 2006. (R)

Charming. Magnetic. Murderous. Egocentric. All these adjectives describe President Idi Amin who ruled Uganda in the 70s. Looking back we can see with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. But during his rise and initial rule he appeared a savior. McDonald (State of Play) gives us a glimpse into Amin's story through the eyes of a young naive Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, Wanted). This is a gripping film that is inspired by real people and real events.

It's 1970, and Dr. Garrigan, freshly graduated as a medical doctor in Scotland, cannot stand living at home with his conservative physician father, and on a whim randomly chooses Uganda as a destination. Idealistically, he departs to go serve in a medical mission. He wants to make a difference for those he ministers to. But as he arrives, a military coup puts General Amin (Forrest Whittaker, Vantage Point) in control of the country. Hailed as a hero, he is larger than life.

Whittaker inhabits the role and character of Amin in an intense and scary way. He is totally believable as a monster, a man-child of sorts, and worthily won the 2007 Oscar for Best Actor. He shows Amin deluding even himself as despot. His egocentrism is clear in his self-anointed title, "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular."

In a freak circumstance Nicholas tends to Amin's hand in an emergency. When Amin discovers he is Scottish, he is elated. Amin has an unexpected passion for Scottish culture and all that is Scottish. He invites Nicholas to become his personal physician, living in luxury in Kampala. Though he initially declines, feeling an obligation to the team he has come to work with, the smooth words and sensual living are enough to persuade him to change his mind.

McDonald does a fine job of portraying Amin as Nicholas sees him. At first he seems a true hero. He is bringing hospitals and education to this needy country. He embodies hope for the people. He inspires with his passion. He has family and friends and loyal followers. All seems well and good. Nicholas sees this side of the ruler and nothing is amiss. But just when we feel a sympathy for Amin, McDonald throws in a scene that begins to undo everything for Nicholas and us.

When Amin generously gives Nicholas a brand-new Mercedes convertible and asks him to take him to the airport, Nicholas drives into a surprise assassination attempt. Facing bullets and death, the violence of the country comes home to him. Seeing Amin later face the would-be killers, Amin's hidden temper and fury emerge. Nicholas sees the paranoia that is born by betrayal (or perception of betrayal).

Nicholas has been seduced by Amin's charisma and blinded by the decadence of the lifestyle he is thrust into. How easily we can be blinded by charm and power. Baron Acton once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Amin is an example of absolute corruption. The trappings of power, wine, women, wealth, can make us forget our ethical beliefs, if we are not careful. That happened to Nicholas. Amin elevates him to become his closest adviser, although he does not listen well to advice. Such a position begets pride and pride comes before a fall (Prov. 16:18).

But where power corrupts, charm seduces. When his murders of opponents (and sometimes friends) came to light, and the press is exposing him for a tyrant, Nicholas advises Amin to meet the press, to give an interview with the journalists. In that scene, Amin wins them over with his charm, easily deflecting their contentious questions and bringing them to laugh with him, as tacit supporters.

Yet for all this charm, Nicholas finds his dream life has become a walking nightmare of betrayal and madness. He himself has crossed the line and has become Amin's white monkey. Now, Amin won't let him leave. He is a captive, a prisoner in a prison without bars. As Amin woos the press, Nicholas stands with him, fearing for his life and wondering how to escape.

An early scene brings home a key ethical point. When Nicholas is called in the middle of the night into the ruler's bedroom, he finds Amin scared to death. He tells Amin, "If you're afraid of dying it shows you have a life worth living." There is some speck of truth to this. However, to really live you need to die first. Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (Jn. 12:24-25). We must be ready to die to be ready to live. As Jim Elliot, martyred missionary, once said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." Eternal life is worth more than this life; it requires dying to live.

It is only at the end that we see graphic images of the brutality that emerged from Amin's reign. One in particular hits home for Nicholas and for us. A gruesome view of a corpse is enough to give nightmares.

The murderous insanity that Amin brought to Uganda left 300,000 dead. This kind of reign of terror brings with it the overwhelming shadow of hatred. But hatred is not the answer. Nicholas is pulled aside by a Ugandan doctor and told, "I am tired of hatred, Doctor Garrigan. This country is drowning in it. We deserve better. . . Go home. Tell the world the truth about Amin."

Hatred is a cancer. It brings nothing good. It must be conquered, and it can by the two weapons of love and truth. Revealing the truth of Amin's regime would spark the beginning of the end. Truth is freeing (Jn. 8:32). But the truth must be balanced with love (Eph. 4:15). Love is a more powerful force than hatred. Jesus knew this. He came as God incarnate, a God characterized by love (1 Jn. 4:16). The hatred of Satan and the sin-soaked world manifested itself in Jesus' crucifixion. But by absorbing this hatred in his body in his death, Jesus vanquished sin and hatred. Love proved victorious. Love will always win over hatred.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Village -- sin and separatism

Director: M. Night Shyamalan, 2004. (PG-13)

Billed as a horror film, The Village is more suspense than calssic horror. But it has its share of scary moments and plot twists that keep the viewer guessing. Even with all the blogs and reviews out there, I was surprised at the end.

The film opens in the late 19th century. The village is in olde Pennsylvania and looks a little like an Amish community. This quiet and isolated village surrounded by woods appears serence. But a funeral is taking place. Death has hit and the community has come together to grieve. Sadness mingles with the peace of the place.

But the peace hides a dark secret. The people of the village have struck a deal with the devil. The woods houses creatures, unseen for most of the film, who bring fear into the heart. They will leave the village alone if the villagers do not enter the woods. This enforces an isolation from the surrounding towns, even when medicines are needed to bring healing to the sick, to stop the young from dying.

Shyamalan, known for his twist endings, has brought a galaxy of stars into this film. Joacquin Phoenix is strong and silent, conveying emotion through expression more than words, as the lead character Lucius Hunt. Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Ron Howard, makes her screen debut as Lucius' love interest, Ivy Walker. She is as vocal as Lucius is quiet, probably because she is blind. William Hurt plays her father Edward Walker, one of the elders of the community, and Sigourney Weaver (Avatar) is Lucius' mother, another of the village leaders. Adrian Brody (The Pianist) is a mentally-retarded young man Noah Percy. The cast comes through with strong acting and believable dialog.

When Noah breaches the barrier of the wood, the harmony of the villager-creature agreement is shattered. The creatures begin to be seen once again and to enter the village. Both Lucius and Ivy, for different reasons, also want to enter the woods.

The Village contains two strong metaphors. The "bad color" of red and the "bad place" of the woods both drive the people to isolation. The villagers are living in a bubble, a commune that is cut off from the world. The woods and the creatures represents evil and all that is wrong with the world. Red represents sin and crime, such as murder that would spill crimson life-blood.

How often do we as followers of Jesus retreat into our own spiritual bubble, safe from the world? By retreating into a protected community, we prevent undue influence of our worldview by non-believers. But the price we pay is high. Avoiding their influence, we sacrifice our opportunity to influence the world to the greater gospel of grace. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus called his followers to be salt and light to the world (Matt. 5:13). We cannot be salt unless we mingle with those outside our bubble. As light we are not useful apart from darkness. Jesus gave us a gospel to share, not hoard. Life is not meant to be lived in a bubble of like-minded people. We must cast off this tendency, and choose to live with those who are unlike us, those who need to hear the gospel of Christ.

One more thought on this topic. After three years of ministry, thirty years or so walking this earth, and after dying on the cross and then being resurrected to life again, Jesus gave a very clear message to his disciples at the end of the gospel of Matthew: "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19). We cannot go and make disciples if we are cloistered in our own Christian village.

There is something more at the heart of The Village. As Lucius tells his mother, "There are secrets in every corner of this village." These secrets hide things, items the person does not want known or things the person does not want to recall. Sometimes we do that. We keep secrets, we hide sins thinking if we bury them somewhere no one else can see them they will go away. But sin has a nasty habit of reappearing, just when we think we have it licked. Sin can be forgiven. We know that. Jesus told us that (Matt. 26:28). There is no sin that we cannot confess and receive grace and forgiveness for (1 Jn. 1:9). But sins, like bad habits, require more than simple will power to conquer. They need the power of the Spirit. We have access to this power when we call out to Jesus. God has provided a way out for us to escape temptation and sin, if we look for it (1 Cor. 10:13-14).
So, whether we seek to hide our sins within or push them outside our commune, we must understand they are still there. We cannot escape their presence. We can only acknowledge them and trust in God's grace. Tackling them head on, then, brings forgiveness to us, for our own sins, and freedom to those outside who are still trapped in the kingdom of darkness (Col. 1:13).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Inglourious Basterds -- revenge and American terrorism

Director: Quentin Tarantino, 2009. (R)

This nominee for Best Picture Oscar is the latest revenge movie from Tarantino. Knowing the director, you can expect violence and blood, and you will not be disappointed. Brutality abounds; this film is not for the squeamish. It is also a hybrid American-foreign movie, with more than half of the dialog being in French or German with English subtitles.

But why the misspelled title? When asked in an interview, Tarantino answered, "Here's the thing. I'm never going to explain that." It was his artistic flourish and felt confident enough to keep it his artistic secret.

Tarantino divides the film into chapters, like books, with a chapter title card introducing each new segment. The opening chapter paints the picture: "Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France." This is a fairy tale of sorts. As such, historical accuracy is not required. And Tarantino does play fast and loose with history to create an interesting story that never happened.

The first two chapters introduces us to the three main characters, and set the tone for interweaving narrative elements. In chapter one it is 1941. We see the beautiful French countryside and SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed the Jew-hunter, gently interrogating a French farmer. We also see Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman escaping from the Nazi Jew-hunter. The second chapter shows us American Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) marshaling a special force of Jewish American soldiers who will be dropped behind enemy lines as a guerrilla army sent to instill terror in the Germans.

Although Tarantino views this as much a spaghetti western as a war film, it is fundamentally a revenge film. It encompasses revenge from two perspectives: national and personal. Raine portrays the national perspective. In his "pep talk" to his new band of brothers, he says:
We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And the German won't not be able to help themselves but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us. And when the German closes their eyes at night and they're tortured by their subconscious for the evil they have done, it will be with thoughts of us they are tortured with. Sound good?
His gang will be as ruthless as the worst of the Nazis. He tells his men, "We're in the Nazi killin' business and cousin, business is boomin'."

This brings up an ethical dilemma. Is it right to fight terror with terror? This is apropos in the present time of terrorism and guerrilla warfare, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Raine's men defied the Geneva convention and took no prisoners. But killing in cold blood soldiers who are not Nazi terrorists is murder plain and simple. And these murders are the most horrible. This is clearly incompatible with Jesus' gospel. Regardless of the concept of "just war", Raine is conducting his own unjust war. Where Jesus would turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), Raine will beat and carve the other cheek . . . not his, but his enemy's. Raine is none other than an American terrorist.

Raine and Landa provide a contrasting pair of soldiers, and actors. Where Brad Pitt brings a weird Tennessee twang to his role, and looks nothing like the heart-throb star of earlier movies (such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Christoph Waltz is a suave and educated gentleman. This makes him even worse. He is like Hannibal Lecter, a refined monster. And like that ghoul, Christoph Waltz' creepy performance earned him an Oscar (for Best Supporting Actor). Where Raine's nickname was Aldo the Apache, based on his Indian heritage and violent means of dealing with the dead, Landa's is the Jew-hunter. He is a shrewd detective who thinks like his quarry and so is effective at finding them. He can sit with his prey and play with them, like a cat toying with a mouse, a sadistic killer hiding behind a mask. Which is the real hero? Landa has all the obvious characteristics of an officer and a gentleman, but is self-absorbed and self-focused. Raine is a red-neck, a violent man on a mission. No gentleman or hero, but he has the right end in mind. Neither is the hero we look for in a typical Hollywood movie.

Shosanna represents the picture of personal revenge. Having escaped from the Jew-hunter in 1941, we later see her under a pseudonym in Paris running a cinema in 1944. She wants revenge on the Nazis in general and Landa in particular for the loss of her family. It is personal for her.

It still begs the question, is revenge ever acceptable? When it is national, it is distant, impersonal. But when our own kin have been cruelly killed, can we take matters into our hands to seek revenge? What if it is clear that justice will never be served, as in the case of Shosanna?

Revenge is a cold meal that does not satisfy. Ethically, it is not something we ought to pursue. Yet, in war there is a legitimacy to fighting against the enemy. And when civilians are placed under enemy rule through forced occupation, they have a rightful tendency to fight back. That is not really revenge, though revenge may fuel the fire, as it does for Shosanna.

Through a series of coincidental events, Joseph Goebbels picks her theater to screen the premier for his latest Nazi propaganda movie. And she hatches a plan to kill Goebbels and his cronies, one that is unknown to Raine but intersects with his own plot. There is a bitter irony as we watch dressed-up Germans vigorously enjoy seeing their sniper killing US soldiers and then we recognize that we are enjoying seeing these very same Germans die at the hands of US soldiers.

Unintended or not, Tarantino forces us to question the ethics of watching violence and killing. Should we enjoy seeing people die in stories like this? This is a tough question. Many Christians refuse to watch violent films like this one, and their conscience will prove them right (1 Cor. 10:28-29). Yet, others will feel less compelled to turn their back on such films. As long as we are watching with an eye to the message from the director and an ear for any message from the divine, we can be shrewd viewers, not taking vicarious pleasure in violence for violence sake. Tarantino has given us a well-paced and well-directed movie that makes us think. It is our job to reflect and interact with it.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reversal of Fortune -- can money buy justice?

Director: Barbet Schroeder, 1990. (R)

Did European aristocrat Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) try to kill his rich American wife Sunny (Glenn Close) in Rhode Island in 1980? The tabloids were unsure, the populace had their opinions, but ultimately the American court system found him guilty of attempted murder. But did he really do it? That is the question that the movie addresses but never really answers. Instead, it recounts the story of the von Bulows, with this as a starting point.

Although Claus is the center of the film, Sunny, comatose in a hospital bed, acts as narrator. It is as if she is fully alive mentally even while unable to control her body or communicate physically. As a plot device, it works to cause us to sympathize with her character. With the use of multiple flash-backs we pick up her story interleaved with present day events.

This is more than a legal drama, since we see very little of the courtroom itself. Instead it is a character study of one of the coldest protagonists in movie history. Claus hires Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) to handle the appeal of his conviction. In his first meeting with von Bulow he highlights his major advantage, "You do have one thing in your favor: everybody hates you." And this is so true. Von Bulow is a very unlikable fellow. With his wife and step-children he is cold and callous, indifferent, it seems, to their problems. Irons gives a stunning portrait of icy brittleness and won the Best Actor Oscar for this role.

One of the issues Reversal of Fortune highlights is the difference between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. Even after von Bulow is convicted, he is seen free at large, enjoying the trappings of wealth in his Newport mansion. The opening shot of the film pans an aerial shot across the back yards of this neighborhood. These are not yards, though, they are acres of groomed grass, with out-buildings bigger than most houses. Most Americans will never even walk inside one of these homes.

Along with the wealth comes an enhanced set of expectations. Von Bulow assumes that even if his appeal is denied, he will be allowed the liberty of time to settle his affairs. He simply cannot picture himself as a common criminal.

Which brings us to the question of justice and equality. The underlying judicial system assumes all are equal, rich and poor alike. The 14th amendment, dealing with citizenship rights, declares, "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The rich cannot simply apply their position, power or wealth to buy themselves preferential treatment.

This is a biblical principle, too. The Old Testament has much to say about impartiality and equality. The courts must be unbisaed otherwise they will provide a mockery of justice (Lev. 19:15). While the books of Torah laid out the law, the prophets later called the nation of Israel back to the fundamental principles of impartiality. Right after Micah declares what God demands of man ("He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" Mic. 6:8), God decries injustice ("Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?" Mic. 6:11). God is a god who "works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed" (Psa. 103:6). Indeed, biblical justice goes beyond simple fairness and equality; it involves a redress of grievances on the part of the oppressed. Biblical justice includes love and mercy.

Yet, for all the rhetoric about the equality and fairness of the system, the truth is that money makes a difference. Without his wealth, von Bulow would not have been able to hire Dershowitz and his team of students and experts. Running this case from his home, Dershowitz surrounds himself with the best students and lawyers to complete the prep work needed to launch his appeal before the Rhode Island Supreme Court. An average defendant convicted would likely be bankrupt from the first trial and unable to raise this kind of legal team. Money counts, especially here.

Money doesn't buy happiness, though. That is clear both in the flashbacks to von Bulow's life with Sunny and in his present predicament. For all his wealth, he was an unhappy man. We may wish for riches, but this will not solve all our problems, and will likely bring others along with it.

Love is not dependent on money. Many people find love in their lifetimes, even with a moderate or limited income. Poverty does not preclude passion or love. In many ways, the polar extremes of poverty and wealth are best avoided. Agur, the writer of some of the proverbs in the Bible, prays that God would allow him to settle for moderation (Prov. 30:8). We might pray this, too.

As the film concludes with the appelate decision, we leave reflecting on Sunny still lying in the hospital bed with a beautiful view that her eyes never saw. In reality, she spent the last 28 years of her life in this coma, never emerging, before dying at age 76 in 2008. Life is about more than money. Did money buy justice? For Claus or Sunny? You be the judge.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, March 15, 2010

Public Enemies -- living in the present, planning for our destination

Director: Michael Mann, 2009. (R)

If you took Heat (1995) and moved it back in time to the Great Depression you would have Public Enemies. The structure and plot are so close, and both have two actors at the height of their careers (Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the former, Christian Bale and Johnny Depp in this one). But perhaps that's not surprising, since Michael Mann directed both. The main difference is that this film is based on the true story of John Dillinger (Johny Depp, Finding Neverland), the notorious bank-robber.

Set in 1933, deep into the Depression, Dillinger is a man who loves robbing banks and breaking rules. He is surrounded by friends and they crash these banks with confidence and charisma, and little fear of reprisal from the law. Indeed, Dillinger lives openly in Chicago without fear.

The police are of no use and so it is to the fledgling FBI that enforcement authorities look. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) appoints Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight, Terminator Salvation) Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago Field Office with one mission: apprehend Public Enemy number one, Johnny Dillinger. And Public Enemies is really the story of this manhunt, the chase between Purvis and Dillinger.

Mann paints these two main characters as polar opposites. Where Dillinger is a fun-chasing, risk-taking womanizer, Purvis is calculated and focused on one goal, his mission, and fun is a word missing from his vocabulary. Indeed, Purvis has but one expression throughout the film: dour, with furrowed brow and grim demeanor. Dillinger's daring is countered by Purvis' determination. Except for the fact that Dillilnger is a killer, he would seem to be the more interesting of the two. Yet, as the film progresses, the hunt has an effect on Purvis and little by little he becomes more like the man he is hunting. Removing the white kid gloves, his men engage in brutal interrogation and blackmail tactics to accomplish his goal.

Can the mission become so important that, like Purvis, we forget the journey and the means? We all have a mission or set of goals. Yet, are they that critical that we are willing to change, for the worse, to accomplish them? As Christians we have a high calling to "be holy as the Lord is holy" (Lev. 19:2). In pursuit of whatever our goal might be, we need to retain our integrity even at the expense of its success. The ends do not justify the means. We need to use legitimate ends.

Public Enemies has some excellent set pieces, as violent as they are. The prison break scenes play out well. The siege and subsequent shoot-out in a rural lodge depicts graphically the cost in shells and lives of the gangsters' lifestyle. A favorite scene shows Dillinger and accomplices waiting at a red light, freshly escaped from jail, with a police car opposite them and soldiers beside them looking in. Where other men would panic and floor the gas, Dillinger stays cool and waits out the light. What seems to take forever, as sweat runs down his neck, finally concludes with the green light.

Indeed, it is this chutzpah, this sheer cockiness that is captured most evidently by Mann. Dillinger is portrayed as a folk hero, a kind of Robin Hood. In the first bank robbery, after asking for all the money Dillinger nods to some small change on the counter, and says to the bank teller, "That's your money mister? We're here for the bank's money, not yours. Put it away." With actions like this, he wins over the public. The banks, seen as places supporting the rich, catch little support from the common man who is struggling to earn his daily bread. So popular is he, that upon his arrest crowds flock to see the police car that bears him, and he waves like a princess at the Portland Rose Parade.

Despite this apparent popularity, his arrogance is jarring, even if it is real. His willingness to walk into police stations, though being the most wanted man in America, shows sheer audacity . . . or stupidity. The fact that he gets away with it is testament to the lack of communication and watchfulness in those days. And it is this arrogance, combined with the gruffness of Purvis, that defeats the emotional connection of the audience with either man. Which is the hero? Who do we really care about and cheer for? Neither really. And the script leaves us feeling that both characters could have been more developed and hence more intriguing.

It is when Dillinger falls in love with a coat-check clerk, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose), that we begin to see inside his mind. He describes himself to her in a 30 second bio: "I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn't know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you... what else you need to know?" Clearly the past has little value to him. His philosophy becomes even clearer: "We're having too good a time today. We ain't thinking about tomorrow." He is living in the present, soaking in the thrill of robbing banks, walking into police stations, sleeping with his moll.

The present is important, for sure. We can look to the past, but it is behind us, gone. We can anticipate the future, but it is only potential. The present is here and now and so very real. We can all resonate with Dillinger's feelings on this. And yet, living in the present and ignoring the past will lead us to repeat the mistakes of history. Worse perhaps is to ignore planning for the future and to focus solely on the moment. This leaves us to the cruel winds of destiny. Better is to savor the moment and plan for the future. Jesus told a parable about planning, saying it is better to think ahead and make decisions now based on what we expect then (Lk. 14:28-29). With a plan we can flex as change happens; without a plan change will hit us like a two-by-four squarely between our eyes.

Dillinger shared a second aspect of his approach to life with Billie: "The only thing that's important is where somebody's going." This implies some form of planning, or at least a destination for our journey. It is a key question for all of us to face. Where are we going? What is our destination? Is it a place, a career goal, a vocational mission opportunity, or something else? Without a clear destination, we are adrift in the river of life, pulled hither and thither without input. If we follow Christ, our ultimate destination is heaven, and eternity with our Lord (Jn. 14:2-3). Moreover, our destination includes the end point of our character journey, which is to become exactly like Christ (Rom. 8:29), a goal that will be fulfilled but not in this life. This destination is the one that has most value, and the one we should be focused on.

When Billie asked Dillinger his destination, he responded with cocky confidence, "Anywhere I want." Yet for all this, without Billie he really had no place he wanted to be. When he succumbs to the killing bullet at the climax, it is almost with relief. His emptiness enters into oblivion. Do we want to emulate Dillinger? Without a firm destination and a plan, this might well happen to us, though less violently.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, March 12, 2010

Jerichow -- jealousy, mistrust and debt

Director: Christian Petzold, 2008 (NR).

As Jerichow opens two men pull up outside a church cemetery. A funeral is taking place. They are seeking Thomas (Benno Fürmann), whose mother has just been buried. When they take him home, we realize they are after him for something. It turns out to be money. We never learn who these two are, or what this money is. But when they leave, Thomas in his old house broke and unconscious, a mystery man. But broke is the keyword.

Taking a job as a cucumber picker, his prospects pick up when he sees a car crash occur. Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a Turkish businessman living in this German town, has had too much to drink and needs a driver. Suddenly, Thomas has a job. When Ali introduces him to his young, attractive wife Laura (Nina Hoss), the trifecta of characters is complete.

Jerichow is billed as a German neo noir reworking of The Postman Always Rings Twice. That 1946 classic film noir was itself remade in the 1981 film of the same name with Jack Nicholson as the restless drifter. This German version is slower and brighter. Jerichow is a small East German town on the Baltic Sea. Here Thomas is not a drifter, but has come home penniless. The Greek husband is now a Turkish husband. While the scenery is prettier, the dialog is minimalist, and the characters mysterious.

Knowing the original storyline, it is inevitable that Thomas is attracted to Laura, the femme fatale. His attraction turns into passion when Ali has to be brought home drunk by the two of them. This classic love triangle unfolds amidst jealousy and mistrust.

Ali is jealous of his wife. There is a righteous and rightful jealousy. A husband should be jealous for the love and affection of his wife. She should not be tempting other men, and jumping into bed with anyone but her husband. That is fundamental to the marriage covenant. Jealousy applies to our relationship to God, too. He says of himself, "for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God" (Exod. 20:5). God deserves the love and worship of his people and is appropriately jealous for it. This is not a sinful jealousy; neither is that of the husband.

But Ali's jealousy leads to mistrust and deep suspicion. He is constantly checking up on Laura. Though he has pushed Thomas and her together, and even suggested to Thomas that she is attractive, he seems to be looking to catch her out. Their relationship is not built on trust and growing intimacy.

When we become suspicious and mistrusting in our relationship we pour a slow-acting poison into it. Rather than bringing it into the open for discussion and resolution, we begin to sneak around trying to trap the other person in the act. This is not healthy for a marriage. Intimacy in marriage is built on love, respect, and open communication. God's blueprint for a growing marriage is quite simple: "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. . . . Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Eph. 5:22, 25). This is in the context of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21). Husbands want to be respected; wives want to be loved. Both want to be able to communicate their hopes, dreams and feelings to the other without fear of shame.

Eventually we do learn some secrets from Laura and Ali, but Thomas remains an enigma. Strong, silent and handsome, it is hard to feel for him as we simply don't know him. None of the three are particularly likable.

In a moment of vulnerability Laura says to Thomas, "You can't have love without money." If "love" is what draws these two together, it is money that will cement their relationship or leave it hanging.

And that brings us to the keyword of the film -- money -- and the main theme: money as a driver. Many people would agree with Laura, seeing money as a key enabler. But this is untrue. You most certainly can have love without money, though it might make it harder. Many students graduate from American colleges deep in debt, with little money but lots of love. Universities not only award degrees but are also the places where love blossoms and marriages bloom. Moreover, there are many couples living on the poverty line buoyed by marital love even while lacking monetary cash.

Jesus frequently taught about money. In his sermon on the mount, he said we cannot love God and money (Matt. 6:24). Here it would seem you can't have love and money. But the focus is on serving a master. If we love money so much that we would serve it, doing anythnig to get it, then we cannot love God. He brooks no rivals. Paul put it this way, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim. 6:10). Love and money are not antithetical. But neither are they requisite. Love is central, money is peripheral.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Book of Eli -- walking by faith

The Book of Eli Artwork

Directors: Albert Hughes & Allen Hughes, 2009. (R)

The Book of Eli is a post-apocalyptic vision of Ametica somewhere late in the 21st century. This genre seems to have been over-used in the last decade, with recent offerings like Terminator Salvation and The Road, and my favorite, The Matrix. So, I was ready to soak in the desaturated grays and drab colors, and be mildly disappointed. Surprisingly, I found this addition to be engaging and exciting, if excessively violent.

As the film opens we see dust fall like snow onto the barren landscape. Nothing moves. Then a feral cat creeps up to sniff the toe of a human corpse. Waiting and watching is Eli (Denzel Washington, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3), with an arrow targeted on the kitty. It will be his dinner. This silent introduction emphasizes the destruction of civilization as we know it and the isolation of this man.

We find out that Eli is a man with a machete on a mission. He is heading west carrying a book. With only the possessions in his leather backpack or in his pockets, he forages and scavenges. When he finds dead bodies he rifles through their pockets for anything valuable. His two prized possessions are the book and an old iPod, that he connects to some form of battery to play music. In an interchange later with a young woman, Eli reflects on life before the event (which remains unexplained): "People had more than they needed. We had no idea what was precious and what wasn't. We threw away things people kill each other for now."

The Book of Eli Publicity StillThere are a number of clear biblical or moral themes in this movie, and this is the first. With life becoming once more difficult, little things have become precious. The wet wipes from a fast-food restaurant, once a throw-away item, are now valuable in the absence of shower water. In today's America, most of us have way more things and stuff than we need. This is partly a result of the ubiquitous advertising that drums a subconscious message to us that we need more to be satisfied and fulfilled. It is partly a result of our inherent greed and lust for more. The result is the same, though. We are rich without knowing it. We place little value on things because we have so much. When scarcity comes, if it does, these things become useful, and the things we value highly, like our mindless entertainment, becomes useless and irrelevant.

As Eli wanders West, eyes covered behind aviator sunglasses to protect him from the heightened ultra-violet rays, we begin to realize this book is the Bible and it is the only one left. Just as there is a famine of food and water, there is a literal dearth of God's Word. The prophet Amos foretold of events like this in his book, " 'The days are coming,' declares the Sovereign LORD, 'when I will send a famine through the land— not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD' " (Amos 8:11). This spiritual famine brings with it a picture of the depravity of man. The characters Eli encounters early on are men who would kill and cannibalize others to feed their own stomachs. There is no morality. It is a grim dog-eat-dog, or man-eat-man, world devoid of God.

When Eli enters a small town we pick up the main plot of the film. And we discover, too, that The Book of Eli is as much a Western as it is a futuristic nightmare vision. The original Western genre had as staples, the saloon, the town boss, usually wicked, gunslingers, an outsider hero (e.g. Shane), and a shootout in the main street between this lone hero and the villains. All of these are present here, with the town boss Carnegie (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight) apparently the only other book reader.

The Book of Eli Publicity StillCarnegie is after this rumored Bible. Is he a man of God? No! He is old enough to remember the power present in the Word and thinks of it as the ultimate weapon, one able to control men. He is correct: "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Heb. 4:12). It is a weapon that can go on the offense in this way. But it is not a weapon that can be employed by men willy-nilly. God does not permit this. In the early days of the church a man named Simon wanted to use the power of God, the Holy Spirit, for his own purposes, even trying to buy it with money (Acts 8:9-25). But God is not commercial in his sharing of power.

The Book of Eli Publicity StillThe Word of God is also a powerful defensive weapon. When tempted by the devil after spending 40 days and nights fasting in the desert, Jesus replied with words from Scripture (Matt. 4:1-11). Despite the temptations, the words of the Bible proved sufficient to defend himself from attack. Eli finds the Book powerful as a defensive weapon in a number of instances, though it is clearly the power of the living God that is at work on his behalf.

It is interesting to see a movie that is not a Christian film centered on the Bible. Of course, here it is a central plot point, but it is still delivering a message. Further, Denzel Washington playing Eli (whose name means "My God" in Hebrew) is himself an avowed follower of Jesus.

In one scene the young woman Solara (Mila Kunis) questions Eli how he knows where he is going, and he tells her he is walking by faith not sight. He might be making a reference to her blind mother and the fact that the spiritually blind (Carnegie) are leading the blind (Matt. 15:14). On the other hand, he is citing the plain truth that followers of Christ are called to walk by faith (2 Cor. 5:7). Indeed, the apostle Paul, quoting the prophet Habakuk, in his letter to the Romans declares, "The righteous will live by faith" (Rom. 1:17). We do not always know where God is leading us. But faith implies trust in his leadership. Faith does not require sight or prior knowledge: "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Heb. 11:1).

The Book of Eli Publicity StillBut The Book of Eli is not preachy, calling us to accept a gospel. Using Solara, the daughter of his concubine Claudia (Jennifer Beals), Carnegie discovers that Eli has the long-sought book. This sets up the various violent encounters and set pieces that many Christians will find questionable. The brawl in the saloon takes little time but leaves many dead or maimed on the floor. The gunfight in the high street is quick and bloody. The extended shootout at an isolated ranch is thrilling and realistic. And there is the early savage fight with the cannibals that left them harmless, armless and dead.

Toward the end, Eli comments quietly to Solara, though almost to himself, "In all these years I've been carrying it and reading it every day, I got so caught up in keeping it safe that I forgot to live by what I learned from it." What a challenging thought for those of us who relish the Word of God. Have we lost sight of our mission? It is not to protect the Word of God. It is to live by it and share it with others. Are we still doing this? Or has it gotten lost over time? As James, brother of Jesus, said in his short epistle (Jas. 1:22-25):
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Oscar Predictions

If the Oscars were given out by the readers of this blog, the Best Picture picture is clear. Out of 37 votes cast, Avatar was the outright winner with 37% of the votes. Its nearest rival was Up with half that number. So, the two-horse race, from this community, was between those two movies. But in reality, it looks it's between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Tune in tonight to see who picks up the trophy.

Here are my personal predictions of who will win, at least in the top 8 categories:
  • Best Actor: Morgan Freeman (Invictus)

  • Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

  • Best Actress: Meryl Streep (Julie and Julia)

  • Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique (Precious)

  • Best Animated Feature: Up
  • Best Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon (Germany)

  • Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)

  • Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Do you agree? Share your thoughts and predictions by commenting below. Now, let the games begin!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Intimate Strangers (Confidences Trop Intimes) -- listening and loneliness

Director: Patrice Leconte, 2004.

Sometimes we need to see a therapist. Imagine sitting down with this counsellor and pouring out your intimate secrets, only later to find out the therapist is actually a tax specialist, a financial advisor! That is the premise of this French drama.

When Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) exits the elevator in the old Parisian building, she turns left instead of right and knocks on the wrong door. She starts to tell William (Fabrice Luchini) of her marital struggles. As time wraps up, she schedules another appointment with this "doctor," and he has spoken hardly a word. He didn't have the opportunity to correct her misunderstanding.

By the time she finally finds out, she has already divulged sexual secrets and feels emotionally raped. Yet, she has also found a keen listener, one who does not put himself in the middle of the conversation. And she comes back for more of his time and attention.

Leconte gives a slow and gentle meditation on loneliness. As he did in Man on Train he takes us on a journey into the depths of human relationship, exploring two people whose lives are quite lonely. Is this loneliness self-imposed?

William and two other characters in the building offer one perspective on loneliness. The doorkeeper spends her days watching soap operas on TV alone. Even when someone like Anna arrives on the scene, she simply glances at her traverse the corridor to the elevator. William's secretary, a controlling old maid, admits to watching trashy television while eating junk food. A widow, she is happy to pass her time with little human interaction. William voyeuristically watches the couples in the adjacent apartment building, observing their passions and fights. All three have settled for watching life go by outside of them, rather than participating in the actual living of life. Their loneliness is combatted with watching others, not relishing relationships.

However, Anna has an impact on William. She touches something deep inside his soul and causes a flicker of life. And despite acting as "therapist" for Anna, William seeks out the counsel of Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy), the therapist Anna was originally supposed to visit. He wants to know how to help her. Dr. Monnier offers William some sage advice, "It's the patient's job to lead the hunt for clues. The psychoanalyst knows nothing. He knows the patient knows but the patient doesn't. See?"

This is the classic foundation of most counseling: the patient already knows, but needs help in drawing out his or her own answers. It is at the heart of what coaches and mentors do: ask questions and listen to their client or patient. Indeed, William is a good listener, good enough to allow Anna to talk herself through her own problems.

The Bible talks to this, too. James tells us, "My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (Jas. 1:19). Some wit once said God gave us two ears but only one tongue so we would listen twice as much as we speak. Regardless of this pithy advice, active listening helps build relationships, and draws the speaker out. The book of Proverbs has many verses telling the reader to listen and grow wise (e.g., Prov. 10:19, 22:17, 23:19). Listening is an art. The person who can do this well, really giving careful attention to another person, empathizes and encourages. This is a skill we need to sharpen.

Listening, though, can be good and bad. William shows both types in his daily work. As he becomes fixated on Anna, his interviews with clients become unimportant to him. Poor listening tunes these people out. They are talking, but William is not really listening. The sound hushes and we cannot even hear them clearly. How often do we listen without really hearing? Our spouse may tell us something while we are surfing the web and we nod and grunt but avoid listening. We are pretending to listen. On the other hand, when Anna is talking William is completely present. He is listening, engrossed in what she has to say. This is the kind of attentive listening we need to give to our spouses. When we do this, we are picking up every word, each subtle nuance, even the unspoken communication of body language.

As William's listening draws Anna out, she reveals more and more of herself. She opens up and changes. Leconte makes this evident by her visual changes. Her dour clothing and demeanour are replaced with bright colors and smiles. She comes to a deeper level of self-understanding and self-acceptance.

Who is helping who, though? When Anna tells him that there is a locked door inside him, she has put her finger on his issue. In this way, Leconte forces us to face the question, do we allow ourselves to be intimate with others, or in fear do we choose to remain strangers behind our own locked doors, within our fortresses of solitude? In other words, is our loneliness a form of self-protection?

We can become comfortable in our own loneliness. We can hide behind our habits and behaviors (William's obsessive-compulsive neatness) instead of taking the risk of revealing ourselves. Intimacy connotes the idea of close personal relationship involving love and acceptance. In this sense, "intimate strangers" is a playful oxymoron. We cannot share intimacy with strangers. We can share intimate secrets, but not true intimacy.

To escape our loneliness requires risk-taking. Any time we open our hearts and share secrets or emotions we face the possibility of rejection or humiliation. Sometimes that is too big of a risk. But it is one we must take if we are to share intimacy with a friend or lover. Both Anna and William discovered this, in their own ways, in this film. Will we discover that the power of love will cast out these fears (1 Jn. 4:18)? Will we take the risk of moving beyond being intimate strangers? It might mean choosing the wrong door and then making it the right door!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Iron Giant -- choices and souls

Director: Brad Bird, 1999. (PG)

Before Brad Bird won his two Oscars for directing Pixar's Ratatouille (2007) and The Incredibles (2004), he cut his directorial teeth on this shorter animated movie. A decade old it still seems fresh, and at only 90 minutes it feels a perfect length. Aimed at families, it has enough to keep both kids and adults engaged and satisfied. In fact, it has fewer juvenile jokes and seems more adult than most animated movies these days.

This is 1957 and the Russians have just sent Sputnik into orbit, beating the Americans in the space race. An early scene shows kids being taught in school how to prepare to survive an atomic blast, as if that were possible. This is the era of cold war and paranoia.

The film opens with an object descending from outer space through the stratosphere into the sea off the coast of Maine. It is a robot. For some reason this iron giant has lost its purpose and communication abilities. All it knows is to eat metal.

When news leaks out two things happen. First nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal) meets and befriends the Iron Giant. Second the US Government sends agent Kent Mansley (voice of Christopher McDonald) out to look into this potential weapon, fearing it is from one of America's many enemies. Of course, Mansley becomes the antagonist to Hogarth's protagonist.

Hogarth's initial response to the Iron Giant is the same as that of the town: fear. But when he saves its life, it recognizes he is a friend. The innocence of the alien robot and its friendship with Hogarth is juxtaposed by the alienation of Hogarth from other kids his age. He has retreated into imagination, and the Giant seems to be an answer to his prayers.

Hogarth's fear-turned-frienship is a marvellous picture of acceptance. When we put our fear and discomfort behind us and reach out to those who are different from us, we can discover that we are more alike than we thought. Jesus broke all social boundaries and conventions when he walked the dusty streets of Nazareth and Jerusalem. Reaching out to beggars (Lk. 18:35), touching lepers (Mk. 1:41), he also became friends with the hated tax-collectors (Matt. 9:9). When he called Levi, also known as Matthew, some thought him mad. Matthew may have been fearful of this radical and different person with a following, yet his friendship developed and was captured in the gospel account that still bears his name.

This kind of friendship changes us. As Hogarth begins teaching the Iron Giant (voice of Vin Diesel) words and simple speech, the Giant asks questions that provoke serious thought. When hunters kill a bambi-like deer, the subject of death emerges. The Giant asks, "You die?" and Hogath responds in innocence, "Well, yes, someday." The Giant thinks about this and asks another question, "I die?" That is more difficult: "I don't know. You're made of metal, but you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul. And souls don't die." Is this robot alive? According to Hogarth he is, and he possesses a soul.

For a family film this early focus on death and its implications is surprising but not disturbing. Its theology is amiss, but then it is not a Christian film. Though the Bible does not define life, it certainly points out that humans possess a soul (Mk. 8:36), but seems to make that a distinction limited to mankind. The soul is part of the immaterial aspect of humanity. Some verses speak of the soul as distinct from spirit (1 Thess. 5:23, Heb. 4:12), while others seem to make them synonymous (Mk. 12:30). Dallas Willard, a philosophy professor at USC, describes the soul as that factor that integrates all of our thoughts, feelings, choices, actions, spirit and heart into a unity that forms one life.

What is theologically true, regardless of understanding of soul, is that souls never die. Hogarth is right about this. We all will die. Our bodies will be laid in the grave and worms will feast on them. But death will separate our spirits and souls from our bodies causing them to move to their future destinies: some to be with the Lord, later to be re-embodied in an eternal body in a heavenly existence, some to be apart from the Lord, also re-embodied but in a hellish existence.

Hogarth and the Iron Giant are befriended by another outsider, Dean (voice of Harry Connick Jr.). Dean is beatnik junkyard owner but only to collect metal for his artistic creations. An artist, he fashions works of beauty from thrown out pieces of junk. In a sense he represents God the creator, who recreates works of art out of the cast-offs of society, even us!

Toward the end, one of the themse of The Iron Giant becomes clear: "You are who you choose to be." When Hogarth tells him to pretend to be the evil robot from his comic books, the Giant, holding a large letter "S" to his chest, says who he wants to be: "Superman." The Giant has made his choice. How about us? Who do we choose to be? Do we choose to be good, even a hero? It is not as easy as Hogarth makes it out to be. Simply choosing does not cause change. But it starts with a choice. And to be a real hero, to be intrinsically good requires that choice to start with Christ. When we follow Jesus he infills us with a new nature (2 Cor. 5:17) and indwells us with his Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17, 10:44).

Mansley rents the bedroom in the Hughes house from Hogarth's mom, Annie (voice of Jennifer Aniston). This gives him opportunity to threaten the boy and discover the Giant's location, setting up the climax. And it is in this moment, when the town is truly under attack, that the Iron Giant's Christ-figure motif becomes readily apparent. And in contrast, the "good" American agent is seen to be a selfish and paranoid coward.

The Iron Giant leaves us reflecting on sacrificial courage and selfish cowardice. We are constantly making choices in life. Will we have the courage to make the big choices, those that cause us to live an epic story?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs