LBTM: Meet the Steeles

LBTM: Meet the Steeles November 21, 2008

We cut to Chicago, a series of fades beginning with an aerial shot of downtown and ending in the interior of the Steele's suburban bathroom, where Rayford is looking at himself in the mirror.

The soundtrack blares the title song, "Left Behind," by Bryan Duncan, which is worth mention here since it's a near-perfect introduction to the frustrating Mr. Duncan: great pipes, capably derivative but dated musical style, insipid lyrics. This song, recorded in 2000, is not intentionally retro or an effort to revive the musical styles of the late '80s and early '90s. It's just that it seems to have taken the CCM folks 10 years to get around to ripping off New Jack Swing.

They do that thing where the external soundtrack morphs into an internal soundtrack and we hear Duncan's voice sounding tinnier and staticky. The music is apparently coming from Chloe's room. So even though at this point in the story she's a worldly, unsaved intellectual, she's already developed a taste for listening to bad contemporary Christian music on an AM clock radio.

Cut to CamCam on the TeeVee. That's our Buck sitting at a news anchor's desk reporting for GNN (the Global News Network here substituting for Global Weekly). Buck the anchor is poorly lit and sickly pale in a wrinkled suit, slumping over the news desk like a pre-makeover Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. His report, though, marks a constructive compression and correction of the novel. Here the Israeli Miracle has been moved closer in time, so that it occurs just days before the Event. He also mumbles something about speculation that Israel may have used some kind of top-secret "laser defense." That's a flimsy bit of phlebotinum, but it's enough to suggest that here people might view Israel's miraculous-seeming defense as a non-miraculous event without having to be the kind of deliberately obtuse and willfully truth-denying idiots that the novel repeatedly suggests all non-RTCs must be.

As Cam-Cam's report plays on the television, we see Chloe and her little brother wrestling over the remote as part of a perfunctory Meet the Family scene. Mom says some mommish things and Dad says some daddish things.

Throughout this off-the-shelf conversation the filmmakers want us to see the division that runs through the Steele family. On the one side are Irene and Raymie, who are cheerful born-again RTCs. And on the other side are Rayford and Chloe, who are played by legitimate actors.

For several seconds here I liked the idea that we would be getting to see the Steele family pre-Event and intact, but that response didn't survive our actually meeting Irene and Raymie. It's no wonder that Rayford and Chloe are both packing their bags, eager to get out of the house.

Irene seems fragile and nervously birdlike, like at any moment she could burst into tears or fly into a violent rage. She reminds me of one of those Catherine O'Hara characters in a Christopher Guest movie. Watching her desperately hanging all those balloons and streamers you get the feeling that she has a secret drawer filled with dozens of prescription bottles.

Raymie is much worse. Nearly every negative stereotype attached to the phrase "child actor" is on display here. He's mugging on every line such that, regardless of the actual words he's speaking, every sentence seems to be "Aren't I adorably smark-alecky?"

This ruins what might otherwise have been the first half-decent joke in the film. His dad promises to bring back a souvenir from London and the kid asks for "one of those long, pointy sticks that they put heads on" (the script seems to confuse Buckingham Palace with the Tower of London, but let that pass). "Where does he get this stuff from?" Rayford asks. The punchline is "Sunday school," but the kid delivers this line in such an intrusively hammy fashion that all we can hear him saying is "Look at me! Aren't I the cutest?" and the joke falls flat.

Bad child actors, it seems to me, make a convincing case for the doctrine of original sin. Or at least a convincing case against the idea of childish innocence. I tend to like the idea of an "age of accountability," but as I watch this kid greedily wrestling for the spotlight I start to think that maybe some kids ought to be among those left behind. I don't remember feeling any particular dislike for Raymie while reading the book, but this kid sets my teeth on edge.

By contrast, while reading the book I found Rayford Steele almost impossible to like, ever, even a little bit. He is, from the first sentence to the final page, just about the least sympathetic protagonist I have ever encountered. But here, remarkably, I've already begun to like Rayford.

Brad Johnson inhabits Rayford Steele and sets out to make the character human. He's not getting any help from the dialogue or the plot, but he seems determined to make Rayford believable, to provide some kind of emotional logic for why he is who he is and why he does what he does. It's jarring how different this makes him from the perversely inhuman cartoon in the novel.

Johnson is a far better actor than Jerry Jenkins is a writer. That doesn't just mean that he conveys Rayford more fully or accurately than Jenkins is able to, but that he conveys Rayford differently. Casting a capable actor here means that the Rayford Steele in the movie is a different character entirely than the Rayford Steele in the book. This is a Good Thing.

I suspect that there's a bit of method-acting subtext to the scene that follows, the conversation between Rayford and Chloe in the driveway. Chloe admits that Irene drives her crazy too and that she can't stand her mom's church friends either, but she pleads with her father to at least humor them and pretend to be nice.

I imagine that an almost-identical conversation may have occurred between Janaya Stephens and Brad Johnson, probably in the smoking area off to the side of the set for this movie. "They're not my favorite people either," Chloe/Janaya says, "but we should at least pretend to take an interest." Rayford/Brad seems to think that's a lot to ask. He wishes her good luck and heads off to work. He's got a paycheck to earn and he's going to earn it.

As Rayford drives off, the soundtrack blares Bob Carlisle's "After All (Rayford's Song)" — a maudlin, oversung and overproduced piece of CCM-dreck awkwardly tacked onto the scene. The filmmakers' inability to integrate the "hit songs" written for the movie's soundtrack with the movie itself will become a recurring motif in LBTM.

Suddenly, rat-a-tat, "GNN Studios, New York" and Buck Williams is purposefully striding out of an elevator, being hailed by his adoring coworkers, when his cellphone rings.

"Buck, Dirk Burton. I know who's behind those planes falling out of the sky. … Not on an open line. … Meet me at the usual spot."

Now this is interesting. Dirk is a quite different character here than he is in the book. He's been conveniently and sensibly transplanted to New York, but more than that he seems to have been changed from nervous whistleblower to full-blown schizophrenic. Jack Langedijk — a sort of poor man's Hank Azaria — plays Dirk as a man tormented by voices and hau

nting half-glimpses of a massive conspiracy.

This makes movie-Dirk a lot more fun than novel-Dirk, but it's a curious choice for the filmmakers. It's an admission of sorts that their beliefs about the future seem similar to the ramblings of an unstable conspiracy theorist who imagines nefarious connections he's unable to defend. It's like an admission that their beliefs are indistinguishable from madness.

That could be an astute starting point if they were really interested in convincing the rest of us that their premillennial dispensationalist Bible-prophecy-seminar vision of the future is true. "You might think I'm crazy," was, not coincidentally, the first line of the title song from the soundtrack that we just heard a moment ago, and that's not a bad first line when you're describing your belief in something that might, in fact, make others think you're crazy. But the next step ought to be to say, "Let me prove to you that this crazy-sounding thing is actually true, and therefore not crazy to believe."

That's where I expected this truth-telling-madman take on Dirk Burton to lead us. But that doesn't happen with Dirk. He may have stumbled onto the truth, but apparently he believes it for the wrong reasons. He believes it because of some disk full of evidence he downloaded off of Cothran's computer. That doesn't seem to count. Apparently it only counts if you believe the truth because you read it in the Scofield Reference Bible and you chose to accept it without evidence.

The lyrics to "Left Behind" don't say, "You might think I'm crazy … but it's really true." What they say, rather, is "You might think I'm crazy but … I've made up my mind." Those two things aren't actually mutually exclusive, though, are they?

Ironically, CamCam's problem in this scene is that he hasn't made up his mind. Confronted with Langedijk's manic and unhinged Dirk Burton, he just doesn't know what to do. Or rather he never decides what to do.

CamCam, like the script for this scene, can't seem to decide whether Dirk is mentally ill or just in need of some sleep and a couple days off. He can't seem to decide whether he rushed off to see Dirk because he was looking for a legitimate story tip or because his old friend sounded like he was off his meds again and in need of help. CamCam could probably have played this scene either way, but he needed to decide one or the other and to stick with it with as much conviction as Langedijk brings here.

I don't believe, as Kirk Cameron does, that the book of Revelation presents a check list of future events preordained by God. I do believe, however, that the book of Revelation contains some excellent advice on acting that Cameron needs to learn:

"Thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot."

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