TFTM: The temptation of Buck Williams

TFTM: The temptation of Buck Williams January 31, 2012

Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, Part 5

Earlier, in a faithful adaptation of a scene from the book, the filmmakers were no more successful than Jerry Jenkins had been in portraying a phone call to an unlisted number as a sign of the Antichrist’s terrifying power. In this next scene, director Bill Corcoran strays from the book significantly in an attempt to increase the creepy-Antichrist factor.

In the movie, it seems, Nicolae Carpathia can control elevators.

Cam-Cam presses the button for the ground floor and instead the elevator heads up — ignoring whatever buttons he presses to take him to the roof. There the door opens and two large men greet Buck by name, escorting him to where Nicolae is waiting.

That’s a far better entrance than any Nicolae makes in the book, and the rest of this scene is also an immense improvement over the material its adapted from. (Yes, that’s a low threshold, but still.) Corcoran condenses the action, which allows it to seem like action, rather than like the several chapters of treading water he squeezes down into this one scene. In the novel there were several more phone calls, leading up to Nicolae’s arranging for Buck to fly to New York for a meeting. Jenkins recounted every detail of that flight in excruciating detail before belatedly trying to inject some suspense into the story by having Buck fear that the limo driver was a hired assassin. That all took several dreadful chapters to unfold, none of which contributed to the readers’ sense of Nicolae’s menace.

Here, too, we can gratefully appreciate Corcoran’s wise decision to do away with the agonizingly drawn-out business in which Buck and Rayford wasted a hundred pages insisting that they would never, ever take a job working for Nicolae. In the film, both characters quickly decided not just to accept such jobs, but to pursue them. That saves us lots of time and makes the heroes appear more decisive. Oddly, though, in this scene it means that Buck and Nicolae both want the same thing.

Corcoran’s biggest advantage in this scene is that he has Gordon Currie playing Nicolae. Currie doesn’t seem interested in portraying the “young Robert Redford” described in the novel. He seems to be shooting more for a young Christopher Lee or a young Bela Lugosi. He attacks the part with an enthusiastic B-movie turn that sometimes borders on camp (and sometimes sets up camp in camp).

In this scene, Currie is actually a bit more restrained, playing up the persuasive, idealistic side of the character rather than the mustache-twirling, cackling villain he unleashes elsewhere.

The conversation between Buck and Nicolae diverges quite a bit from the book. It’s a condensation of the longer, less-focused discussion there, incorporating much of what both characters should have said.

Nicolae greets Buck and seems to quiz him to see if he remembers witnessing the double-homicide in the last film. Cam-Cam is awkward and evasive and wholly unconvincing.

This is why that name “Cam-Cam” is invaluable here in discussing Kirk Cameron’s portrayal of Cameron “Buck” Williams. When you watch this scene you’re aware that you’re not just watching Cameron Williams acting awkward, but that you’re watching Kirk Cameron acting awkwardly and you’re not sure where one stops and the other begins. (Somebody there on the roof isn’t sure what to say, how to say it, or what to do with his hands.)

Inexplicably satisfied by Buck’s non-responses, Nicolae moves on to his big proposal. He wants to hire Buck to work for him after the takeover of all major media by the U.N.’s new one-world government.

This proposal is indefensible, but — unlike in the book — both characters seem to realize that. “A free press is the cornerstone of a free world,” Cam-Cam says, nobly. And then he even explains why, saying that government control of the press means “leadership without accountability.”

His full line, unfortunately, is “Leadership without accountability does not sound very compelling” — the latter half of which, frankly, does not sound very compelling, and sounds even less compelling as delivered by Cam-Cam. (I’m picturing Cam-Cam in colonial Lexington: “Taxation without representation … does not sound very compelling.”)

For his part, Nicolae recognizes that a principled journalist will and should object to his scheme, so he makes the best possible case for it by appealing to a lofty-sounding higher purpose. Only through controlling the media, he argues, can his government keep the pain and trauma of the Event from turning into blame and conflict. He frames it as the idea of uniting truth and power to fight “fear and suspicion.”

Currie almost makes it sound like he actually believes this is a noble plan. It still doesn’t sound very compelling, but it’s more compelling than the pitch Nicolae makes in the book.

“And if I refuse?” Buck says.

“I don’t think you can,” Nicolae responds, then quickly adds, “This is too important.”

They shake hands to seal the deal and, just like that, the Tribulation Force has its first secret agent in place. Success!

But it’s not clear if we viewers are supposed to be happy about this.

This is just  the arrangement that Buck was hoping for — it’s what he believes God wanted him to do. But it’s also just the arrangement that Nicolae was hoping for. The book was quite comfortable with those two things being identical — the will of God and the will of the Antichrist. Here in the movie, though, Corcoran seems more ambivalent. He zooms in tight on the handshake as the score strikes a sudden note of ominously Antichrist-y music.

There’s also the whole rooftop problem.

I don’t mean the logistical questions involving how Nicolae could have known when Buck would decide to leave his desk and head for the elevator. The whole Prince of the Power of the Air swooping down from above vibe is kind of spoiled if you imagine Nicolae standing around for half an hour, checking his watch and fiddling idly with his elevator remote-control as he waits for Buck to call it a night. So let’s just give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his uncanny timing is somehow related to his mind-reading mojo.

What I mean is that this rooftop setting is too much of an allusion to the temptation of Christ in the wilderness:

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

If Corcoran didn’t intend that allusion here, Currie surely did, making sweeping gestures that all-but recite those verses from Luke’s Gospel.

So what just happened, then? Did we just witness Secret Agent Cam-Cam infiltrating the inner circles of the dark side? Or did we just witness Cam-Cam agreeing to bow before Satan in exchange for worldly authority?

Or both?

My take — which probably doesn’t correspond to what the filmmakers were thinking — is that this is a parable about the sorry state of modern journalism. Just listen to what Buck says just before he shakes hands with the Antichrist: “If I’m going to report the truth, I need access to it.”

Access. That’s what it’s all about for Buck — ensuring that he gains, and keeps, access to the highest levels of power. Without that, he says, it would be impossible to do his job, so whatever trade-offs he needs to make in the name of access he regards as necessary trade-offs. Even if it means becoming a bought-and-paid-for employee of The Powers That Be. That’s contemporary journalism in a nutshell.

Down on the street, Buck strides from the building, passing chairs randomly strewn about on the sidewalk as sirens blare in the distance of this dangerous, post-Rapture city. And there, on the mean streets of this chaotic, violent world, Buck’s motorcycle sits, undisturbed.

Steve Plank strolls up, displaying the same remarkable timing as his boss, and welcomes Buck aboard in the new one-world media. It’s a weird little tacked-on scene, but it makes another helpful change from the novel.

“The Ben-Judah announcement, that’s the event,” Steve tells Buck. “Believe me, it’ll be the biggest story of your career.”

In the book, Buck was the one who decided that a rabbi’s research findings was a higher priority story than the prophecy-fulfilling peace treaty in Israel or the abolition of every national government or a billion still-missing children. That seemed absurd and the authors never much bothered to defend it. But here, Corcoran has Steve — meaning Nicolae — steering Buck toward covering Tsion Ben-Judah’s messianic research.

That’s an intriguing difference, hinting that Nicolae is expecting the rabbi to conclude that he is the Messiah. The movie never bothers to explore that idea, but unlike the book it at least allows room for us to explore it, and to think how much more interesting this story might be if it turned out that Nicolae really believed he was the Christ instead of knowing full well that he is the Antichrist.

Now we take an abrupt turn from clandestine rooftop meetings to half-hearted romantic comedy.

Here is the front-porch farce from the novel, replayed rather faithfully. Again I’m grateful to Corcoran for sparing us the belabored build-up. The weird “flowers are in the trash” stuff is dispensed with, and rather than having Chloe stew for days, the conflict between her and Buck occurs the same day as her initial Not What It Looks Like misapprehension.

Just as in the book, she pleads with her father to chase Buck off the porch. And just as in the book, Rayford inexplicably sides with the 30-year-old man chasing his daughter. He does this despite having ample reason to believe, as Chloe does, that Buck is engaged to another woman. That’s far creepier than the remote-controlled elevator.

As in the book, Rayford actually lies to Chloe. It’s a minor little fib — he tells her he can’t chase Buck away because he’s in the shower, even though he isn’t. That doesn’t amount to much here in the movie. But this scene in the book comes just a few chapters after Buck and Bruce agonize over the possibility that Buck might be tempted to lie to the Antichrist in order to save lives. So lying to the devil to save lives is bad, but lying to your daughter to prod her into talking to the engaged older man on the porch is OK?

In the book, Jenkins set up his NWILL subplot so that we would see Buck as wrongly accused and take that as a close-enough approximation for his being good. That sets up Chloe to be the villain in this scene, but even though the filmmakers stick closely to the book, it doesn’t play out that way.

Cam-Cam takes a bit too much time to relish how confused Chloe seems to be. This makes him seem more condescending than innocent. And Chloe is finally straightforwardly aggressive here, a refreshing change from the passive-aggressive poutiness of her earlier scenes. Janaya Stephens leavens the humiliation and embarrassment of Jenkins’ scene with a relieved delight. It’s a small touch, but it’s enough to flip the scene around from the way it was written — to put the viewer’s sympathies on Chloe’s side, rather than against her. We wind up happy to see her happy.

“You can have all the time you want,” she tells Buck, hugging him warmly.

That’s an unfortunate choice of words considering this is the Great Tribulation, the final clock is ticking, etc. But still, it’s kind of a nice moment.

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