And for a change, a ‘Noah’ movie story that sails smoothly

And for a change, a ‘Noah’ movie story that sails smoothly April 3, 2014

Last week, I criticized USA Today’s fast-food cheeseburger of a story on the religious controversy over the new “Noah” movie.

Today, I want to praise the filet-mignon level of coverage served up by CNN’s Belief Blog and Godbeat pro Daniel Burke.

Before I do so, I must confess that I have not seen the movie and may not make it soon, as I still need to catch the new Muppet and “Veronica Mars” flicks. Plus, baseball season just started (if you’re a fan, you might enjoy my column on Opening Day in Texas), so my free time is more limited. Smile.

But back on topic: Under the headline “Does God have a prayer in Hollywood?” the in-depth CNN report combines a tractor-trailer load full of meaty material, from the director’s motivation and insight to important background on faith-based films past, present and future. Throughout, the piece provides the kind of details that speak to the beat specialist getting religion.

Let’s start with a big chunk of the top:

Los Angeles (CNN) – Forgive Darren Aronofsky if he’s begun to identify with the title character of his new film, “Noah.”

Like the infamous ark-maker, the 45-year-old director has weathered a Bible-sized storm – and it’s not over yet.

Aronofsky’s epic, which stars Russell Crowe and boasts a $130 million budget (with marketing costs to match), rode a swelling wave of controversy into American theaters on Friday.

Despite fierce criticism from some conservative Christians, “Noah” was the top box-office draw last weekend, raking in $44 million in the United States.

Part Middle-Earth fantasy flick, part family melodrama, the film is an ambitious leap for Aronofsky, director of the art-house hits “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”

Both of those films were showered with praise and awards. “Noah,” on the other hand, has sailed into a stiff headwind.

Glenn Beck and megachurch pastor Rick Warren blasted the film. The National Religious Broadcasters insisted “Noah” include a disclaimer acknowledging the filmmakers took “artistic license” with the Bible story. Several Muslim countries have banned the movie, citing Islam’s injunctions against depicting prophets.

Even Paramount, the studio releasing “Noah,” has agitated Aronofsky, testing at least five different versions of his film with focus groups.

See the deft way that Burke explains the Muslim opposition (the depiction of prophets)? That’s basic journalism maybe, but USA Today mentioned concern by Muslim-dominated nations with no explanation why.

Give CNN credit, too, for understanding the importance of reporting on the director’s own faith background:

Aronofsky, who describes himself as culturally Jewish but not especially religious, said he respects how important the Noah story is for believers.

“We tried very hard not to contradict anything in the Bible,” the director said. “But we also wanted to bring the story alive for a 21st century audience.”

And how does Beck’s Mormon background play into his perspective? Glad you asked:

Beck’s biggest problem with “Noah” was Noah himself, whom Mormons believe is the angel Gabriel in human form.

“I always thought of Noah as more of a nice, gentle guy, prophet of God,” Beck said, “and not the raving lunatic Paramount found in the Bible.”

Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, said he has the same problem with Aronofsky’s depiction of Noah.

The Bible calls Noah a “righteous man,” Johnson said. In the movie, his character is much more complex.

Noah begins the film as a rugged environmentalist who teaches his family to respect the Creator and all of creation. As he becomes increasingly zealous, Noah seems bent on destroying life rather than saving it.

By the end, Burke reaches this crescendo:

Aronofsky and Handel insist, however, that their film never directly contradicts Genesis, and even takes pains to remain faithful to it. The ark, for example, is built to the Bible’s specifications, down to the last cubit.

Ultimately, though, the director has little patience with literalists on either side of the believer-atheist divide.

It’s ungenerous to insist, as some Christians do, that there is only one way to interpret Genesis, according to Aronofsky. But it’s also pointless to argue, as some atheists have, that no ark could possibly hold all the animals.

The story of the flood has lasted for millennia not because it’s “right” – or wrong – but because it’s deep and alive and unsettling, the director said.

The artist’s job, like Noah’s, is to make sure those kinds of stories survive – to prepare us for the next storm.

Now, I’m a journalistic fuddy-duddy, so I would have chopped that last line. It’s too neat and tidy. Too opinionated, IMHO. But I’m nitpicking because that’s that what media critics do.

Overall, this is a fine piece of steak. Enjoy every bite.


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6 responses to “And for a change, a ‘Noah’ movie story that sails smoothly”

  1. FYI –

    You can go ahead and wait until “Muppets Most Wanted” is available for rental.

    There are clear signs throughout the movie that the film was heavily reworked from its original concept (including evidence in the opening musical number that the film was supposed to be titled “The Muppets Again”), and perhaps as a result of the last-minute reworking the film doesn’t quite come together like it should.

  2. Good reporting. For the film on its own merits – I thought it was okay. The dialogue was disappointing on the whole. The environmental message was clear and not unexpected, though a bit heavy-handed. The Watchers’ role and background as told in the film was a novel twist on the apochryphal literature, but their portrayal was unconvincing. Still, the film does a good job conveying the wickedness of mankind that prompts God’s judgement, particularly when Noah disputes with his wife on the goodness of his sons; and certain scenes are quite stunning, like Noah’s troubled dreams, the people clinging to a wave-battered mountain-top as the world is flooding, and the beautiful sequence (reminiscent of Malick’s “Tree of Life”) as Noah recounts the story of the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel. I still find it curious that Aronofsky and Handel claim the movie never contradicts the Genesis narrative. It’s fair enough to say, for example, that the roles of the Watchers and Tubal-Cain are artistic license and don’t directly contradict Genesis, but in the Bible, Ham and Japheth are said to married when they entered the ark. Not so in the film; in fact, Shem’s wife’s apparent barrenness and the fact that Ham and Japheth don’t already have wives is a major plot point behind Noah’s determination that all mankind will die out. It would certainly be fair to question Aronofsky and Handel on that point.

  3. Since we’re discussing movie reviews and not straight news stories: the most interesting commentary I’ve seen on the movie is by the great Fr Barron who points out that the movie is like a Jewish Midrash. Christian society tends to forget that it was Jews who wrote the Old Testament and they are the original interpreters of what it means – not Christians, Muslims or Mormons. Most stories in the Old Testament are very sparse and the Midrashim are literary attempts to fill out those stories. It’s a very, very ancient literary form that is important to the Jews along with the Torah, Mishnah and Talmud. The last 10% of the video has a Catholic flavor that you can ignore if you want.

  4. You definitely need to see Veronica Mars. It’s excellent! I know, I know, off topic.

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