TFTM: Happy endings

TFTM: Happy endings March 9, 2012

Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, Part 9

Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, Part 10

The fire-breathing prophets and flaming stuntmen marked the dramatic highpoint of our film. The big conflict is now behind us and Cam-Cam’s scheme is in place.

Or is it? Director Bill Corcoran only has one source of tension left to milk for suspense here at the end of his movie –we don’t yet know for sure whether the two magicians were able to fix the brainwashed rabbi.

So as everyone prepares to watch Tsion Ben-Judah’s Big Messiah Announcement on TV, no one — the heroes, the villain or the viewers — can be sure what he will say. Will he, as the Antichrist hopes, declare Nicolae Carpathia to be the Jewish Messiah? Or will he, as the Trib Forcers hope, instead shock the world by revealing to them the great secret that there are these people called “Christ-ians” who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah?

Nearly everyone watching this movie will have already read the book, so they know what Ben-Judah says in that story. But the movie has diverged from that story enough that something else might happen here. Plus, this is supposed to be the “Great Tribulation” — a period in which, according to the “Bible prophecies” of Tim LaHaye, the Antichrist rules the world with absolute power. Nicolae is supposed to be in the middle of an unbroken seven-year winning streak, so shouldn’t we expect him to triumph here?

But then again, watching the Antichrist triumph isn’t really what the target audience wants from this movie. And its star, former teen idol Kirk Cameron, seems too concerned that his character be shown to be a role model for him to tolerate anything other than his character’s success. So there’s not a whole lot of suspense to be had here. For all that Corcoran wants us on the edges of our seats, wondering what Ben-Judah is going to say, we already know how this will turn out. The Christians will be declared right and righteous and Cam-Cam will boldly triumph over the Antichrist and the forces that are “detrimental and ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.”

In the sanctuary of New Hope Village Church, still in hospital mode, Chloe and Ivy weep and hug after witnessing the just-in-time deathbed salvation of Burn-Victim Guy. We can already see that Ivy is beginning to have the feelings in her heart that will make her want to believe in choosing faith (or whatever it was that Chloe said about how salvation works in the universe of this movie).

The next day, Nicolae Carpathia is holding a press conference in front of a painting of Jerusalem. The presser is crowded, with a huge throng of journalists from all over the world clamoring to record every word he says.

This seems unnecessary. Nicolae is the head of the one-world government and of the one-world media. These reporters all work for him now and his global media monopoly ought to bring some economies of scale. The OWM doesn’t need to send everybody to a press conference. And Nicolae doesn’t need to hold press conferences. He could just send a memo to his media minions, ordering them to “Print the following.”

Big crowd scenes like this reveal the home-movie aspect of this production. Low budget religious movies don’t always pay scale, relying instead on volunteers who give their time in support of the project’s “ministry.” Crowd scenes are where we see these volunteer extras at work. Witness, for example, the two guys chewing the scenery as “secret service agents” behind Nicolae. Or the “omigosh! I’m on camera!” looks of the faces on several of the folks in the crowd around Cam-Cam.

Nicolae announces that he will be leaving Jerusalem and cannot stay to watch Ben-Judah’s Big Announcement in person. But he urges everyone to tune in, assuring them it’s must-see TV. He repeats this to Buck personally after the press conference. “I appreciate what you tried to do for me at the Wailing Wall,” he tells Buck, placing a fatherly hand on his shoulder.

Gordon Currie does a decent job here selling one of the weaker plot points of the novel. Unless you share Jerry Jenkins’ worshipful adoration of Buck Williams — Jenkins’ surrogate character in the series — then it doesn’t really make sense for Nicolae to be so focused on this one random reporter. Currie chooses to play this as an example of something many real executives do. In an earlier scene, he caught a glimpse of Buck on television and suddenly declared that this one reporter — this one reporter that he, personally, singled out — will be the lynchpin of his plan to promote himself as Messiah. Currie played it as the sort of impulsive move many executives take to inject themselves into minor decisions as a way of asserting that they’re just as capable as all the underlings they rely on every day.

That pays off here, as we learn that Nicolae is wholly convinced by Buck’s cover story about trying to “discredit” the Two Witnesses. Instead of making this seem like the Antichrist has naively swallowed Buck’s ruse, Currie suggests that he’s blinded by his need to defend his capricious latching-on to Buck Williams as the perfect reporter to rely on to sell this story. He’s so invested in the idea that Buck will be perfect for this role that he can’t imagine otherwise. That’s easier to understand than the book’s rationale, which seems to be simply that Buck is so much better than every other reporter on the planet that nobody else will do.

Everyone gathers around the TV to watch Ben-Judah’s Messiah special. Or at least to watch the end of it, anyway, since they all seem to have tuned in half-way through, just barely in time for the big reveal.

Ben-Judah is speaking from the same site as Nicolae’s press conference, which seems to be the courtyard of the Dome of the Rock on top of the Temple Mount. This seems dubious for at least two reasons. First, an Islamic holy site seems like a poor location for a Jewish rabbi to announce that he’s becoming a born-again Christian. And second, the fire-breathing Two Witnesses are only about 60 feet directly below where this crowd is gathered. And heat rises.

Ben-Judah reveals that his years of research mostly focused on the works of Josh McDowell. As the about-to-be former rabbi blathers on about the “109 prophecies” the Messiah must fulfill, we see the heroes watching eagerly. Buck is there in person, filming the announcement. Rayford watches from the plane, having left the controls to his co-pilot. And Bruce, Chloe and Ivy are gathered in Bruce’s office at the church.

Nicolae is watching, too, smirking in anticipation as the rabbi lists the various prophecies he’s taken pains to assure he seems to fulfill. His look of confidence evaporates, changing to disbelief and anger once Ben-Judah goes off script. “The Messiah must be born in Bethlehem,” Ben-Judah says.

Steve Plank looks confounded. Nicolae looks enraged. I’m just surprised. Bethlehem? They forgot about Bethlehem? They hadn’t thought about inventing some connection between Nicolae and the city of David? This is what comes from being raised by Satanists instead of in a nice, respectable familiar where you celebrate a proper Christmas.

In another room of the plane, Rayford plucks a doohickey out of a wall socket, thus somehow ensuring that Nicolae is unable to cut off the GNN broadcast from flight. Nicolae calls GNN headquarters and orders them to end the broadcast, but not before Ben-Judah announces his conclusion: “There is only one person in history who fulfills all these prophecies, and his name? Jesus Christ.”

“Christ” isn’t actually a name, of course. It’s a title. It means “anointed,” or “Messiah.” So in addition to being kind of anticlimactic, Ben-Judah’s declaration that “Christ is Messiah” is also redundant.

The Tribbles are jubilant. “Praise God!” Bruce shouts, pumping his fist as though his team had just scored a touchdown because, of course, that’s what he thinks just happened.

As Ben-Judah gets ready to begin an altar call, we see that Krista Bridges has applied some glycerin and is tearily feeling in her heart that she wants to believe in choosing faith.

“Please forgive me for doubting,” Ben-Judah prays on TV, just before Nicolae has the broadcast cut off. Because, you know, that’s what he’s been doing as a rabbi all those years — sitting around and doubting Jesus. What else could rabbis possibly be doing with their time?

“Pray with me,” Chloe says to Ivy and to all of you unbelievers out there watching at home. Bruce kneels to pray with them, actually doing the palm-on-palm praying-hands thing — like he just got the word “praying” in a game of charades. Chloe leads Ivy through a standard Sinner’s Prayer recitation of the magic words that will transform her from someone justly doomed to an eternity of fiery torment into someone destined for an eternity of bliss.

But this scene isn’t about personal transformation — about a character making a pivotal decision in her life. It is, instead, an instructional video. It can’t be about Ivy, because it has to be as generic and explicit as possible to serve its function here as a how-to guide for any unsaved person watching this movie.

Rayford heads back to the cockpit and settles in behind the controls of the plane. There’s a nice moment as he plucks photos of Irene and Raymie out of his shirt pocket, affixes them to the wall by his seat, and smiles warmly. It’s treacly, but it’s an attempt, at least, to give Rayford an emotional arc that has something to do with his healing from the recent loss of his wife and son.

Nicolae is not smiling warmly. He sits alone at a conference table, simmering. Hattie tries to comfort him, but you know how it is when your boyfriend had his heart set on being declared the Jewish Messiah, only to be disappointed at the last minute. There’s just nothing you can say. He chases her off, then begins flinging stuff around the room in a rage.

Then, like everyone else at this point in the movie, Nicolae prays.

You might not think about this as “prayer” in the usual sense, but what else should we call it? The man is talking to God, addressing God directly. That’s prayer.

“This is not the end!” he screams. “This is my time! My will be done!” And then, instead of saying “Amen,” he finishes with a resolute “I will.”

I like this scene. I think it was intended mainly to show us Nicolae’s furious frustration at having his plans foiled by those pesky kids in the Trib Force. But Currie isn’t playing it that way. He’s not showing us Nicolae’s comeuppance; he’s showing us Nicolae’s side of the dispute.

And the Antichrist has a point, after all. He’s angry with God because they had a deal and, according to the parameters of this story, God isn’t keeping God’s side of that deal. It’s a bit odd, then, but the Antichrist’s prayer here is an expression of righteous anger.

We hear a congregation singing “How Great Thou Art” and the scene shifts to the sanctuary of New Hope, which is back in church-service mode with the various clinic patients again tucked away wherever it is they’re hidden when church is in session. Everyone is smiling and singing in celebration of their recent victory.

Cam-Cam arrives late, making a big entrance. The choir awkwardly repeats the chorus several times in a row to give him time to walk around and hug all the other named characters one by one. And, well, that’s it.

Hugs and smiles and roll credits. It seems like a happy ending.

And, again, that’s strange considering that this is a movie set during the Great Tribulation and the absolute tyranny of the Antichrist. That setting only allows for a happy ending if you cheat — ending the movie before reaching the actual end of the story.

Tribulation Force isn’t the story of the Tribulation, but of a tiny, selective slice of the Tribulation. As soon as that slice reaches an apparent high point for heroes, the movie stops and we can thus pretend that this is the end of the story and that it is a happy ending.

One could argue, I suppose, that all stories with happy endings do this. After all, “And they lived happily ever after” is really just short for “And they lived happily ever after until they each died, frightened and alone.”

In this case, we’re given a happy ending showing the heroes’ triumph over the schemes of the Antichrist. That’s not the real end of the story, though, since we know that the Antichrist goes on to rule with an iron fist and that every attempt to stop him will prove futile. But that’s not the real end of the story, either, since ultimately the Antichrist will be toppled by the coming of TurboJesus.

LaHaye regards this as the ultimate happy ending — at least for the small percentage of people whom TurboJesus opts not to kill.

This question — what’s the real end of our story? — is at the heart of most apocalyptic literature.

Despite what Tim LaHaye says, John of Patmos was not writing a series of Nostradamus-like predictions to be decoded thousands of years later on a continent he’d never imagined. John’s Apocalypse was written for specific people in a specific place who were suffering through a horrible story under the heel of a triumphant Empire.

John’s contention, in spite of the way this story was going, was that the triumph of the Empire was not the real end of their story. Their story, he insisted, would ultimately have a happy ending. The Empire will fall, the horse and rider will be hurled into the sea, the first will be last and the last will be first and God will wipe away every tear.

I like John’s idea of a happy ending better than LaHaye’s.

There’s one more bit of happiness here at the end of Left Behind II: Tribulation Force. As the ending credits begin, we hear Bob Carlisle begin to sing a Gospel-inflected little pop song about the Rapture. But if you stick through the first minute and a half or so, you get to hear Ashley Cleveland sing the third verse.

So if you’re going to watch this movie, I recommend that you stay all the way through the end credits.

No, wait, that’s cruel. If you’re going to watch this movie, I recommend that you press “play,” go do something else in another room for an hour and a half, then come back in to hear Cleveland sing during the end credits.

No, wait. How about this? Just skip the movie altogether and head over to YouTube to hear Cleveland and her husband Kenny Greenberg rip through “Samson and Delilah” or “You Gotta Move.” There you go: a happy ending.

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