TFTM: Chauffeurs for the powers that be

TFTM: Chauffeurs for the powers that be January 11, 2012

Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, Part 2

Left Behind II: Tribulation Force is, obviously, a sequel. As such it gets a bit bogged down initially in some awkwardly sequel-ish revisiting of stuff from the first movie.

I’m happy to give director Bill Corcoran a pass on that, though, since this early part of the movie also makes me gratefully aware of how much this adaptation condenses, cuts and enlivens scenes that dragged on pointlessly for hundreds of pages in the book.

Rayford’s dream-vision of his raptured wife is a serviceable device for reminding us what he has lost, and an excuse for recycling some of the footage from the Rapture scene in the first film. “May you walk in the faith of the Lord,” Irene says to Rayford, which sounds sort of like it’s something from the Bible, even if it isn’t.

We hear sirens in the background in an exterior shot of the Steele’s home the next morning. Scattered trash cans on the lawn signal that Corcoran is going to be more committed than Jerry Jenkins was to maintaining the notion that the post-Rapture, post-RTC world is marked by chaos and criminality.

Inside the home, Rayford is removing photos of his wife and son that he finds too painful to look at. We know what he’s thinking and feeling here because Brad Johnson is a professional actor who shows us. I can’t say that’s true of other scenes in this film featuring other members of this cast.

Chloe enters and quickly establishes that movie-Chloe is not going to be as capable and mature a character in this movie as she sometimes seemed — or maybe as I wanted her to seem — in the book. Meta-Chloe won’t be making an appearance here. All we see, in this scene and the next, is more of the same petulance she showed earlier.

That next scene is set in Bruce’s office, where Buck bustles in, not noticing Chloe’s brightly hopeful greeting. Kirk Cameron and Janaya Stephens gamely walk through the gender-clichés of that dynamic, but neither conveys his obliviousness and her needy disappointment as well as the fatherly look in Johnson’s reaction shot. His reactions do the heavy lifting in this scene — something that becomes more apparent in later scenes where he’s not present.

This produces a strange sensation for me. Watching this movie, I find myself missing Rayford Steele when he is absent from a scene. That never happened when I was reading the book.

Cam-Cam says of Nicolae Carpathia that: “The way they’re talking, he’s not just secretary-general of the U.N. It’s more like he’s president of the entire planet.”

No one in the book would have made such a distinction because Tim LaHaye thinks those two things — secretary-general and “president of the entire planet” — are identical. He thinks this is how the United Nations really works. In the John Birch Society mythology that provides the framework over which LaHaye has stretched his “Bible-prophecy” scheme, the U.N. is nothing more than a nascent form of the tyrannical one-world government that LaHaye believes the coming Antichrist will make official. If this scene had been written by LaHaye, Buck would have said, “He’s secretary-general of the U.N.  and that makes him president of the entire planet.”

Bruce Barnes is the leader of this little group and he lays out the first of several versions of what he sees as the agenda for their little squad. He says they must “work together to share the truth with anyone who will hear it.”

This is where, in a typical Christian-brand movie, he would go on to explain what that truth is, spelling out the filmmakers’ formula for the gospel of salvation and walking the audience through their idea of a response to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”* This is a standard feature of the evangelistic films Billy Graham produced, and of Donald W. Thompson’s Thief in the Night series. That’s because those filmmakers wanted to seek and to save the lost — they wanted non-Christians to see their films and thereby to decide to become Christians. That’s not what these Left Behind movies are for.

It’s a bit painful to watch Clarence Gilyard in this scene and in the argument with Rayford that follows. You realizes that you’re watching a capable and charismatic actor being confounded by a script that forces him to say contradictory things. Gilyard doesn’t seem to have any better a guess than we viewers do of what Bruce might mean or feel or think when he says these things.

Given that, Gilyard and Corcoran probably make the best possible decision here by just barreling through this stuff as quickly as they can. It’s best, after all, if the audience isn’t given too much time to ponder lines like: “We can’t stop him. We can’t change the events of the Bible. The Antichrist will rule. What we have to do is fight him.”

(Now I’m imagining a group of believers gathered around their sacred text of prophecy. But in this story — the one I’m imagining — the words of that text are as alterable as the family photographs Marty McFly carries around in Back to the Future. As they work to foil the prophecies, the words of the text change accordingly. …)

Bruce shares his flannelgraph of the Two Witnesses, explaining that “It’s a crucial End Times prophecy. A lot of people believe they will do their work in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall.” Before anyone can point out that it would be really anachronistic to think the Bible said anything about “the Wailing Wall,” Buck jumps up and announces that he’s going to Jerusalem, producing another outburst of pained petulance from Chloe.

“What can I do?” Rayford asks. And Bruce responds by urging him to get a job working for Nicolae as a pilot.

That is why I’m grateful to Corcoran. The book gave us chapters and chapters of convoluted machinations by Hattie trying to convince Rayford to become Nicolae’s pilot. And then, finally, several hundred pages in, after a wincingly awful scene involving lots of earnest furrowed-brow prayer,** Bruce tries to talk Rayford into taking the job. Fifteen minutes into the movie and we’re already there. Thank you, Bill Corcoran!

In the book, Rayford Steele objects to working for the Antichrist mainly because it would be dangerous. Here, instead, Rayford doesn’t want to work for the Antichrist because he’s the Antichrist.

“He’s gonna slaughter millions of innocent people,” Rayford says. “I won’t be a part of that.”

“Innocent” people is also not a category the book recognizes as meaningful.

“You’re asking me to drive Jack the Ripper door-to-door so he can kill people,” Rayford continues.

In response to Rayford’s moral objection, Bruce offers five arguments explaining to him that it is his Christian duty to serve as chauffeur for Saucy Jack.

1. “These are not ordinary times.”

2. “None of this is easy, but we have a calling now.”

3. “If you don’t, somebody else will.”

4. “Who would you rather in the cockpit? Someone who thinks Nicolae is a god? Or someone who knows the truth?”

5. “We need the information to save souls, Ray.”

I don’t think any of those points actually engages the substance of Rayford’s moral objection. But I do like to imagine that while reciting Nos. 4 and 5 above, Gilyard was actually thinking this: “Who would you rather in the role of Bruce? Someone who thinks this script is good? Or someone who knows the truth? We need the money to pay the rent, Clarence.”

Inside, meanwhile, Cam-Cam and Chloe are alone and unchaperoned. She continues hitting the same note as in her previous scenes, acting wounded because others aren’t accurately guessing what it is she’s thinking. And he continues hitting the same note as in his previous scenes: “Hi, I’m Mike Seaver.”

Seriously, it’s difficult to watch Cameron playing Cameron in this movie without constantly thinking two things: 1) He hasn’t aged visibly since Growing Pains, and 2) He hasn’t gotten any better at this since Growing Pains.

Kirk Cameron did 23 episodes of Growing Pains with Leonardo DiCaprio. You probably knew that, but I had to write it here again to try to convince myself that it could really be true.

For fun, scroll through DiCaprio’s post-Growing Pains résumé on IMDB — from This Boy’s Life to J. Edgar — and try to picture his former co-star in those roles instead.

I have to admit that this is mostly what I was doing during the rest of Cam-Cam’s scenes in this week’s segment of the movie. I tried to give those scenes my full attention, but once I realized the actors weren’t giving them theirs my mind started to wander. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. … The Basketball Diaries. … Romeo + Juliet. … Titanic. … Celebrity. … Gangs of New York. … The Aviator. …

Buck heads to the office instead of to Jerusalem, and is met there by the “Ivy Gold” character from the first movie who will apparently be substituting for Spiky Alice from the book. As I try to picture Cam-Cam toe-to-toe with Jack Nicholson in The Departed, I realize that the bossy lady in this scene is supposed to be Verna Zee. I didn’t recognize her — not because she’s played by a black actress, but because we’re never shown her famously sensible shoes.

Cam-Cam rolls his eyes and smirks just as he did in the book, but the showdown ends with Ivy aggressively flirting with Verna. That’s unexpected, but nothing comes of it as Ivy winds up, instead, heading back to Buck’s apartment for the night.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* That question is from the Bible, from Luke 18, where it was asked directly of Jesus. Ask it directly of a Christian and it’s very, very unlikely they will answer you the way he did.

** What I mean by that is that when some people pray and they feel like they ought to feeling something feelingly — or that they ought to appear to be really feeling something feelingly — they tend to make this face with a furrowed brow and a kind of puckered frown. If you’ve seen it, then you know what I mean. This is not an expression that most people actually make when they actually are caught up in fervent, earnest prayer, so when one sees it, it’s usually because one is witnessing someone who is either attempting to feel something they’re not feeling or attempting to appear to be feeling something they’re not feeling.

P.S. The title for this post comes from this song. Lyrics here.

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