There’s nothing inherently wrong with Christian film as a concept. When it comes right down to it, it’s simply one more point of view. People make movies with all sorts of perspectives. They could be politically motivated, philosophically motivated, or often financially motivated. So, what’s so bad about somebody making a movie with a spiritual motivation? Nothing at all, provided the person is able to move beyond the motive and put their time and talent into actually crafting a good movie. And therein lay the problem with Christian film. More so than maybe any other subgenre of film, Christian movies begin and end at the director’s intentions, rather than the execution. And Alex Kendrick’s War Room is no different.
On the surface, there’s nothing really wrong with the premise of the film. The story of a troubled marriage is always a solid foundation on which to build an engaging character piece, especially if the goal is to show the couple attempt to put in the effort to save their marriage. By and large, film has been much more interested in showing the tragic crumbling of marriages rather than those that can be salvaged. Kendrick also explores the theme of prayer and its importance in our lives. This, too, isn’t necessarily wrong to incorporate into a movie. Sure, he may lose a huge percentage of his audience, but that’s okay. Not every film has to be for everybody. And, ultimately, any film boils down to the director’s perception of the world and how best to navigate it. That this particular director sees prayer as an important part of life is, like any other philosophy at the center of a film, artistically neutral.
But, as is always the case with Christian film, the problem is with the execution. From the opening narration, the film wears its message firmly on its sleeve and never wavers from presenting its themes in every scene in possibly can. And it’s not subtle about it, either. People will simply state the film’s central problem, then almost immediately reply with the solution. Scene after scene, Alex Kendrick affirms his intended audience’s beliefs, with minimum conflict and maximum resolution.
At pretty much every turn, the characters experience some low level frustration, pray about it, and are rewarded several times over with the best possible outcome. It’s clear what the director is trying to do; even understandable. He has a message that he wants to get across, and there’s no better way to hammer that message home than to show how positive an effect it has on the characters to believe these things. That’s all well and good, but it makes for very poor drama and quite possibly even worse theology.
Good production values and committed actors can elevate any script, even if they can’t actually salvage it. Unfortunately, as is also pretty common in Christian film, the production values are low, resulting in a non-specific, generic world these characters inhabit. These people exist in houses that look un-lived in and offices that are pristine and unused. The everyday wear and tear of life is nowhere to be seen in this film, in neither the physical world or the nature of the characters. As such, the performances also seem artificial. At best, they are functional, at worst stilted and perfunctory. Either way, they certainly don’t feel organic and engaging. Like everything else in this film, the nuance that an actor can bring to a role is cast aside in service of the message; too subtle and people might not immediately realize who’s good and who’s not.
And, so, in the end, War Room falls victim to the instincts that sink all other Christian film. It is honest in its desire to connect with its audience, but is completely inauthentic in how it attempts to convey its message. In theory, the filmmakers want their audience to feel so engaged by the message that they will go and apply it to their lives. But, of course, people’s lives are infinitely more complex than those of the characters in War Room. Their is a black-and-white existence, where everything works out right as long as you do the right thing. And the audience accepts this, because they want it to be true.
But, of course, we know it’s not true. Part of the point of Christianity- and religion, in general- is to encourage and embolden people to do the right thing, even if the eventual outcome is unsure. And, in fact, over and over again in the Bible, it’s pretty clear that doing the right thing could actually invite persecution and negative consequences. And yet those that are persecuted are expected to persevere nonetheless, because they are committed to a larger truth and a deeper understanding of the world.
No matter what some people may say, this is a philosophy that deserves good, engaging movies to be made about it. And, of course, there are a few. The Last Temptation of Christ comes to mind, as does The Apostle, and A Man for All Seasons. These are complex films the desire to explore the nuances of human nature and the seeming contradictions therein. These are movies for adults, who are savvy enough to understand and grapple with conflict and emotional difficulties.
This is the stuff of life and faith, but it is not the stuff of War Room, a film content to simply pander to its audience and allow them to exit the theater smiling and unchallenged.
In a way, the film winds up being a reflection of its own story. In it, we have a husband who takes his wife for granted, always expecting her to cater to his every whim, no matter how neglectful he has been of her. And his wife, committed more to the status quo than anything else, permits this to happen, because she doesn’t really know anything else. But, of course, soon she begins to demand more of herself and, eventually, of her husband. And their relationship is mended, not because she lowered her standard, but raised it.
Now if only Christian audiences could raise their expectations of Christian film, then we’d see a genuinely engaging relationship between viewer and filmmaker, in which both parties come away having been challenged, encouraged, and enlightened.