In the last few months of my time in the Atheist camp, I caught wind of a Christian movie called “God’s Not Dead” that posited the idea of a Christian student going head to head with an Atheist professor. Not knowing the reputation of Christian movies, which is even a sore spot in Christian circles, I was uncharacteristically optimistic that while I could probably see some intense mic-drop moment coming, at least Atheism would be given something of a fair shake. What I saw instead was one of the most cynical, bitter and intellectually insulting things I’ve seen before or since. While the Atheist professor was reminiscent of the smug, interrupting, sarcastic windbags of the New Atheist movement, the “mic-drop” was a question about how one can be angry at God if he doesn’t exist. While it revealed more of what Dinesh D’Souza calls “wounded theism” in his book God Forsaken, the answer more immediately would be “Because I need to be angry at something and don’t care if its real” or something that could be explored further, but that was just the end of the road.
The movie was, frankly, terrible. Standout moments include when an atheist blogger is diagnosed with apparently terminal cancer days after her workaholic boyfriend dumps her for apparently no reason. Elsewhere, a Muslim woman gets the shit kicked out of her and is subsequently kicked out of the house by an abusive Muslim father for listening to Franklin Graham sermons (and no, I’m not going “out of my way” to point out that she’s Muslim, that’s lit-er-al-lee her character. Just “the Muslim girl”) and the Atheist professor is hit by a car on the way to a Newsboys concert and accepts Jesus before dying on the street.
I am not making a word of that up. Just for fun, I need to set up the 2nd episode “gut-punch”, so here’s a quick spoiler warning. It’s a Christian movie from 2014, so I don’t feel like I’m spoiling Avengers: Endgame here. Anyway, the cancer-stricken atheist blogger joins CCM band The Newsboys backstage at a concert and details her situation as “I’m dying”. After a conversation you can set your watch to, the blogger prays with the band. The concert itself culminates in a member of the Duck Dynasty family actually showing up out of absolutely nowhere, without any prior introduction whatsoever, superimposed on the screen behind the band in a sort of “insert other video here” thing resulting from bad Final Cut work. He then proceeds tell the theater audience (meaning you) to text “God’s Not Dead” to their friends.
Again, I am not making a word of that up. It’s on iTunes, about ⅔ of it is superfluous garbage, and the other third is several varieties of offensive, but if you want to see if this could actually happen in a movie, go ahead and try it. Here’s that gut-punch: the second one actually begins with the blogger calling the Newsboys lead singer, telling him she’s cured. Not outside the realm of possibility, but the resolution is just so overwrought and preachy, and the would be antagonists of the movie are set up as calloused and cynical from the start. I did not finish this movie. I barely watched 20 minutes of it.
So as I write this opening, I am sitting outside of the vacuum that is the Pittsburgh Mills about to watch the movie “Unplanned”. The film is about the life thus far of former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned prolific anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson. The movie is distributed and written by the same people behind God’s Not Dead. Not the best first impression, but there’s a few things on my mind as this prepares to take place.
I’m here for two reasons, the first is that abortion has become a major issue lately, and I’m finding myself drawn to the left’s inability to embrace biology as an objective science. It’s not a stretch to imagine this is the Christian film world “striking while the iron is hot”. The second and stranger reason is this film piqued my brother’s interest first and he gave me a leaning positive recommendation. If I recall correctly, he described parts of it as preaching but noted that the Christian film world had, at least for one movie, learned concepts like shot composition. Most impressively, he mentioned there is one scene in it that was uncomfortable for the same reasons “No Russian” was uncomfortable in Call of Duty: MW2; in that morally abhorrent, “Why would they show this” way and not because it’s cheesy, overwrought, cynical or intellectually offensive. My brother, I believe, does not carry the baggage of God’s Not Dead with him, so maybe he got in on the ground floor of a Christian film renaissance.
The scene, by the way, is a gruesome depiction of the abortion Johnson witnessed. And yes, it’s uncomfortable in exactly the way he describes.
Now, full disclosure, I’m aware that Johnson’s story is, in parts, a matter of who you trust. Planned Parenthood, unsurprisingly, has come out and said parts of the story are garbage, portraying Johnson as an opportunist who changed sides not out of some miraculous change of heart, but to avoid being fired. PP alleges that Johnson was seen “copying confidential files” and removing items from the clinic, which makes her sound like someone who rose through the ranks as a double agent who also violated HIPPA. Neither of these claims were ultimately proven, and we’re back at square one. I should also probably mention I have not read one word of news on this thing. I do know the reviews from all the usual suspects are complaining about propaganda, which is really funny coming from the media.
Ultimately, as I write this 10 minutes after having seen it, I come away with a much more positive impression of this movie than I did God’s Not Dead. There are still some, no pun intended, growing pains here. But it does look like the Christian scene is starting to understand how film works on a basic level. That said, I do want to bring up some of the Pure Flix sludge the movie can’t quite shake off.
First, the music. The music selection is largely out of K-Love or SiriusXM Message, if you’ve been engulfed in the latest genre to have originality sucked out of it (first pop, then country, now CCM), you’ll recognize each of the songs played, except maybe the final instrumental. Oddly, this isn’t really the filmmakers fault as major record labels refused to allow the use of their music to avoid the inevitable controversy that would surround this film. This unfortunately leads to some tonal shifts that just don’t make sense. In particular there is a beat where the Brady, Texas clinic Johnson worked at decides to fast track their abortion procedures before Hurricane Ike hits the Gulf Coast and they close up to ride out the storm (Brady is 5 hours west of Houston). This moment of the abortion clinic going into essentially overdrive is met with Mandisa’s chirpy song “Overcomer”. The music and scene set up this message of “Ok, we got 12 hours to kill all the babies before the hurricane kicks in. Let’s do this” with celebratory “go get em” undertones slightly at odds with the film’s overall message.
Second, to their credit, they don’t paint the employees as aloof, morally smug assholes thumbing their noses at their lessers. Abby’s friends in the clinic are awesome people, and there’s one scene where they share a perfectly normal conversation in the break room until their boss, who is depicted as kind of evil but more on her in a bit, silences the room and the employees quietly shuffle out of the room.
The clinic director that chills the room is Cheryl, a woman who reveals herself to be focused entirely on the mission at hand. We are first really introduced to her in a fateful botched abortion where a young girl continues to bleed after the procedure and is brought back onto the operating table in front of Johnson in a chaotic scene that Cheryl takes control of. As the doctor works to stabilize the girl, Abby wants to call the ambulance which Cheryl vetoes because of appearances, noting that the anti-abortion protestors would jump on the scene of an ambulance outside of an abortion clinic. The girl is ultimately stabilized as Abby is told to lie to the father in the waiting room about what’s going on. There’s another instance when Abby finds out she is pregnant, Cheryl coldly tells her “we can take care of that if you want” before walking out of shot.
She’s just cartoonishly evil. Can someone be this cold? I think so. Is this particular person? I don’t know. I should point out, I can’t find the “stabilize” scene anywhere in her book. This borders on defamation, but at the same time, nobody denied it, so again, it’s what you believe.
One last point, the movie saves a few jabs at for anti–abortion protestors. Lambasting the more offensive yellers and asking “how someone shoot somebody in a church?!” in reference to the Tiller shooting.
Third, there are a few scenes that just come off as weird to people who don’t really understand what’s going on. There is a moment where a hazmat disposal unit brings out what is heavily implied to be a barrel of baby parts (my words, not theirs, fight me), and they bring out another. The members of the Coalition for Life pray over the children. Not a bad way in itself and I understand holding ones hand out as they pray over the kids. At the same time, it’s kind of filmed like this anti-abortion protestor is trying to use the Force.
Fourth, this was written by the people behindGod’s Not Dead, so there are moments of pure preachiness, sometimes literally. Abby and her husband are shown at church at just the right time when the pastor delivers a sermon on Psalm 139, which reads in part” For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb, I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” The difference here is that it is actually not as insidious and it is even, dare I say, believable that, for instance, an abortion worker who is also a Christian may come face to face with that, or Jeremiah 1:5 or any number of Scriptures that denounce abortion. The movie tackles this aptly with a Catholic saying “I don’t care, I’m doing God’s work here”.
Which brings me to my last point, this is a more even-handed look at a topic than Christian films have ever given anything. I’ve seen one full Christian film, 1/5 of God’s Not Dead 2 and because I was curious how Christian films approached the question “how would a cynic approach romance” 1/2 of Old Fashioned. (Answer: By being mopey and cynical until I’m sure he reads a Scripture or something. He’s not even a cynic, he’s just…absurdly rigid. The only people I know who are that tough to crack are legit sociopaths.) Unplanned is a movie where the “bad guys” aren’t portrayed as cartoonishly evil, where the audience isn’t literally given a PowerPoint presentation, and while it wears its beliefs on its sleeve, it’s not intellectually offensive.
If this all sounds like a series of backhanded complements, I believe it has to be. I have no idea how else to handle this. This is the first Christian film I’m not embarrassed to recommend to those who are curious with a few minor asterisks instead of one big one reading “intellectually offensive when it isn’t just flat-out awful”.
You’ll realize I haven’t told you if the movie is functionally good. To answer that: It’s is functional, not great, not terrible. Abby, her workmates, her husband and the two main anti-abortion people are all well-done characters with enough depth to be enjoyable. There are a few clunkers in the script because, again, look who we’re dealing with here, and the plot is not remotely complicated. But a functional Christian film is like a stable Windows laptop or a good DCEU movie: the fact that you’ve seen such a thing in the last few years given what it used to be is something worth celebrating on its own.