Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Machine Gun Preacher

Talk to the Gun

Machine Gun Preacher became my first theatrical outing for 2012, a biopic about the life and times of a down and out former gang biker finding a second life through religion, becoming a preacher and following what he would deem to be his just cause in getting involved in the plight of Sudanese children made orphans and slaves by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Directed by Marc Forster, who also did powerful dramas like The Kite Runner and the last Bond film Quantum of Solace, Machine Gun Preacher found itself in good hands at straddling conflicting ideologies and values in which a man of God takes, finding himself having to fight fire with fire in order to protect lives and the changes he tries to bring about through opportunities provided.

As with all big screen biographies, there is that dramatic license being taken, with the trailer touting this like an all out action film, and like a character said in the film, made Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) seem like a one man Rambo in Africa. The narrative is hardly that blatantly violent, opting to have its first hour concentrating on how rotten a man like Sam actually is, just out of prison, and can't wait for his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) to get back to stripping for a livelihood to fuel his booze and drug addiction. Things spiral out of control, and wanting to change his life, he follows his family members who had found religion, and through that experience, found a new calling in life.

Which came quite accidentally in fulfilling a vision he had of what God had wanted him to do, to set up a church in his hometown where the downtrodden like what he himself was, will never be turned away and to be able to find community, and in a trip to Uganda to put his contracting and building expertise to good charitable use, finds himself embroiled in the fight between the LRA and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), seeing first hand the indiscriminate killings, and inhumane conditions that the Sudanese children have to live in. Deeply perturbed, Sam spends the rest of his life (in the film at least) straddling between two worlds, that of his wife, children and congregation back home in the USA, and that of the African children and SPLA soldiers who are fighting for the children's basic survival.

It's how Forster manages this balance in story that makes Machiine Gun Preacher a compelling watch without indulging in too much action, nor too much emptiness in his talk, reminding me of films such as Hotel Rwanda where one man's efforts has tremendous impact on the community he finds himself in. Sam is precisely the man who walks his talk, preferring positive action and even pre-emptive ones as he launches raids into enemy territory just to save children, whether a couple, or large groups, from their impending doom no matter if there's a price on his head for doing what he believes is right, and can. In a way this helps to propagate a myth that he's virtually indestructable since he has God on his side to combat the evilness of man, and that builds a fearsome reputation that he's a man not to be trifled with.

In order to not alienate the masses, Forster has taken deliberate steps not to get overly preachy with sermons, keeping them to a bare minimum and being absolutely nothing that spreads the word of the gospel, but instead tapping on Sam's experience thus far in providing the fuel to fire up his speeches for his congregation. If anything, the narrative is sprawling, touching upon the insanity of the situation in Sudan, and Sam's spiral into having his cause and calling turn into obsession, and consuming him from within. It reminds us that at times certain situations and environments are far too complex for one man to handle, but that doesn't mean we don't try, only to have to acknowledge the limits set before everything begins to fall apart.

Gerard Butler is clearly the star of the film in having to play someone who's been on the wrong side of the law, and then fighting on the side of God in choosing action over words in leading his faith, preferring to ensure that children, no matter where they are, are given a fair chance at life without exploitation. He's capable of the more dramatic moments when Sam is tethering on breaking down and giving up, after all, it's always so easy to just pack up and walk away from something that inevitably sucks up one's resources and attention to the detriment of one's personal life. And if the situation calls for it, which I believe some quarters will find that this violates some religious ethics in taking up arms and killing in the name of, Butler's in his element as well without going over the top into a guns blazing action hero.

The film is ultimately a thought-provoking one, leaving you room to contemplate if we are frivolously living our lives with disregard to the plight of our fellow man on any other part of the world, or the question may just simply be how do we help, and to what extent and how much can our help be useful. In our relatively selfish ways we don't see how we can continuously deplete personal resources like what Sam did, just to benefit someone else whom we don't even know enough of. Perhaps after watching this we may feel some guilty pangs for a period of time, and I wonder, myself included, how many of us would make small, positive steps, to make our world a better place to live in, through whatever means and efforts we can expend. Sam Childers may be an extreme example of charity, but surely we can find something well within our own abilities.

Machine Gun Preacher opens this Thursday, lookout for it!

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