I haven’t seen anything but the trailer for Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story yet. And I really don’t have any particular expectations about the film itself.
When I saw Hardwicke’s Thirteen, which starred Holly Hunter and Evan Rachel Wood, I was quite impressed with the performances of her cast. Whether that was just the cast being brilliant, or whether it had something to do with Hardwicke’s direction, well, that will probably become more clear as we see more of Hardwicke’s films.
The script? I’ll be very curious. I was a big fan of The Rookie, and the screenplay for that was written by Mike Rich. But since then, the only other Mike Rich screenplay I’ve encountered is Radio… and I would have walked out if I hadn’t been assigned to sit all the way through it and review it. It was sentimental to the point of lunacy. Should we really go telling stories that insist “the community” is all a mentally disabled person needs, and that professional help is a tool of the devil? Should we really be cheering for the local football coach who is tough enough to get between a damaged young man and those scary, scary counselors whose hard-earned degrees might equip them to offer help?
Anyway, I’m hoping for a better script this time, and for another tough, challenging, complex work from Hardwicke.
Alas, I fear that the film, even if it’s a masterpiece, won’t get much of a thoughtful examination by many Christian moviegoers, because the rule seems to be: “If it has ‘Christian content,’ then the movie is automatically excellent.” I hope I’m wrong. I do know that there are many places in which Christians regularly discuss art with a lot of attention to excellence, and they’re not afraid to admit when a Christian’s work could have used a few more script revisions. But they tend to get outshouted by other religious-media personalities, voices that say things in such forceful and outrageous ways that the mainstream press just eats it up.
I hope we see a change in the nature of Christian dialogue about this film.
The film will almost undoubtedly be a big box office hit when it opens. And that’s cool: Christmas is coming, and the story itself is always worth revisiting. Christians will turn out in droves to see the story that is central to their faith.
But let’s keep this in mind: Its opening weekend success will have nothing to do with whether or not the film itself is well-crafted… just as the success of Jackass 2 says nothing about whether or not it’s a good movie. All the first wave of money proves is this: It’s something people want to see. And, as McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken prove to us on a daily basis, people often want things that are poorly prepared and lacking in nourishment
So, what can we expect beyond opening-weekend success?
1. Some people will be deeply moved and even changed.
It is, after all, a true story that brings us hope and comfort. Hardwicke would have to botch it pretty badly to get in the way of this.
But the Christmas story always moves people, and often changes people, even when it’s presented in a conventional nativity scene. Let’s keep this in mind: Just because it moves and changes people doesn’t mean it automatically deserves represents excellent filmmaking. Daytime soaps move people to tears every day. That doesn’t make them award-worthy. Let’s try, at some point, to have an honest conversation about the quality of the filmmaking.
And let’s not forget: Craft matters. The better the film is crafted, the more potential it has for changing the world. If the film is lacking, criticism will be a valuable thing. And we’ll be criticizing the movie… not Jesus himself.
2. Many Christians moviegoers will celebrate it as a landmark film, and they’ll likely herald it as one of the most important films ever made.
This will have nothing to do with whether or not the film is well-crafted. And that’s too bad.
Most of us Christians are very good at celebrating what we agree with, and not so good at discerning excellence from mediocrity.
Again, let’s show that we care not only about the Gospel, but we also care about glorifying God with art of surpassing excellence. Because he deserves our best.
3. In spite of the fact that the film includes the chapter in which Herod’s minions slaughter children, some religious press reviewers will make a rare exception regarding the violent content and they’ll encourage families to take their small children.
And many Christian families will indeed take their small children, assuming that, since the film is about Jesus, little kids should watch it no matter what.
That may be, indeed, a questionable choice if the slaughter is portrayed graphically. No matter how accurate a film is to scripture — there are some things that young children are not equipped to process and understand, and these images could be the stuff of nightmares for them. The Bible is full of stories that, if portrayed with any degree of realism on the big screen, are unavoidably R-rated in nature.
4. Many mainstream critics will be unable to see the movie for what it is.
Instead, they’ll see it as a chance to complain about Christians and paint this as some sign of a right-wing takeover of entertainment and culture. President Bush’s name will come up more than once, as if he had something to do with this. Someone will make a comment about how Hardwicke is taking us “to Jesus Camp.”
However, if the film was a similar approach to portraying a chapter from the history of Islam, it would be heralded almost unanimously by mainstream critics as a brave and wonderful contribution to cinema, and they’d be calling for Oscars.
5. Someone — probably some mainstream critics — will accuse it of being inaccurate or merely “politically correct” when it comes to the range of ethnicity on the screen.
You can’t win these days. If you go out of your way to present ethnic diversity, you get slammed for being politically correct. If you reflect the most likely ethnicities of the characters, you’ll get slammed for not being “inclusive.”
And it’s likely that if a Jewish character does anything questionable, the film will be slammed by some as “anti-Semitic.”
6. At least two prominent Christian film critics will raise hell if the film isn’t nominated for Best Picture, and they’ll blame anti-Christian attitudes in Hollywood.
This won’t have anything to do with whether the film is, in fact, one of the best-crafted films of the year.
It will instead stem from their idea that, since this is a chapter in the Greatest Story Ever Told, it automatically qualifies as one of the best movies no matter whether or not it reflects any particular artistry. And, thanks to these particular voices, there will be another strike against the integrity of Christians when it comes to the arts.
If I’m wrong about those predictions that are rather pessimistic, I’ll be very, very happy.
As for the film itself, well, I’ll make three feeble predictions about it:
1. Whatever most religious press outlets publish, it’ll be worth seeing for the performances rathre than the script, and because it’s a good story that would be hard to screw up. But as far as filmmaking, it’s the acting that will stand out.
2. Keisha Castle-Hughes will continue to be almost unbearably adorable.
3. It’ll be a good film, but it will probably not be, really, one of the five best-crafted, most-award-worthy films of 2006.