Anyone who is especially interested in the source story will probably find Machine Gun Preacher to be worth the price of admission, but not a standout experience.
At first glance, for many moviegoers, Machine Gun Preacher might have sounded like some obscure graphic novel adaptation – especially considering the film stars kick-butt action man Gerard Butler. That said, for anyone unfamiliar with the real-life name Sam Childers, or the numerous non-profit organizations he’s founded, the story of Machine Gun Preacher is wrought with just as much danger and human drama as the pages of a superhero comic book.
That said, while Sam Childers and the story captured in his book, Another Man’s War are no doubt larger-than-life, that doesn’t automatically mean that Machine Gun Preacher is going to be a worthwhile film adaptation. Is director Marc Forster’s (Monster’s Ball, The Kite Runner) “based on a true story” movie a compelling and inspiring representation of Childers’ experiences – or an over-stuffed biopic that gets lost in the twist and turns of real life?
Unfortunately, while Machine Gun Preacher definitely has a lot going for it – the film also routinely falls short of finding a good balance between the development of Childers’ worldview and on-the-nose dramatic beats that attempt to “explain” key moments in his evolution. The real life Childers’ story takes some sharp turns, and subsequently, the movie has to cover a myriad of events in a short period of time. As a result, Machine Gun Preacher is a pretty jumbled and drawn-out film that focuses on a series of important snapshots in Childers’ life, instead of telling a concise, focused, and thoroughly developed throughline of the overarching story.
The Hollywood version of Childers depicts a reckless and hate-filled ex-con and drug addict who, upon his release, continues his destructive downward spiral – until a rock bottom moment causes Childers to reject his prior life and embrace the values of the Christian church. While on a construction trip in North Africa (to build a mission church), Childers is exposed to the horrors of the Second Sudanese Civil War – specifically the large-scale murders and abductions of children. Upon returning home, Childers embarks on what becomes a life-long project: to rescue and protect children in warring nations. It’s a journey that rocks the foundation of his faith and threatens the stability of his home life – as well as bringing Childers face to face with the terrors of war-torn Sudan: assassination attempts, ruthless mercenaries, and child soldiers (among others).
The movie covers a lot of ground (about ten years in fictional time) that actually accounts for about thirty years of Childers’ actual life. As a result, Machine Gun Preacher takes a lot of liberties in an attempt to streamline the narrative – omitting Childers’ son entirely from the story as well as combining a number of people into single composites such as Childers’ “best friend” Donnie (played by Michael Shannon). However, despite attempts at tightening the story, the film is still a bloated and bumpy experience – with nearly every scene forcing a not-so-subtle story beat onto moviegoers.
As a result, each step in Childers’ evolution from drug-dealing biker to an impassioned “freedom fighter” appears to happen in a flash: his conversion to Christianity (which actually took years) practically occurs overnight and his growing frustration with American consumer culture (juxtaposed with the needs of the Sudanese children) comes to a head at a posh dinner party. It’s not that the scenes themselves aren’t interesting – it’s just that throughout the film many of these moments lack much buildup, as if each one is supposed to communicate a larger moral or act as a galvanizing experience to propel Childers forward. There are very few scenes that simply allow the audience to absorb what is happening – without throttling the story forward to the next “defining” set piece.
That said, a lot these moments are still powerful – even if they don’t come together to form a competent overarching story. Butler delivers a number of especially engrossing moments as Childers – and successfully transitions the man from a despicable and disappointing human being to someone the audience will want to root for, even when his actions challenge preconceived ideas of a “hero.” The supporting cast, which includes Michelle Monaghan as Lynn Childers, also rises to the occasion – even if the narrative sometimes bungles their contributions.
Machine Gun Preacher offers an interesting set of juxtapositions, i.e. a God-loving guy kills mercenaries to free children and becomes so overwhelmed by the horror around him that he loses faith in humanity and God; however, only some of the scenes are successfully able to make sense of the underlying thematic material. Surprisingly, for a movie about the power of human will in combination with faith, some of the more religious elements come across as caricature, not individuated examples of Christian communities. This cliched portrayal of Christianity is most noticeable when Butler has to deliver a lot of “preachy” dialogue.
Side note: The film is pretty violent (earning the biopic an R-rating) and featuring a number of graphic moments that will not no doubt be challenging for some moviegoers. The Machine Gun Preacher tone is actually pretty fitting, considering the have-gun-will-travel attitude of Childers, but audience members who are expecting a more straightforward story about faith-in-action might be overwhelmed – and will be confronted several times by especially disturbing scenes.
There’s no doubt Sam Childers is an intriguing lens through which to view the horrors of Joseph Kony and the LRA’s campaign in Sudan but some audiences are no doubt going to find that despite a competent leading man, Machine Gun Preacher tackles way too much material to present a cohesive onscreen experience. Anyone who is especially interested in the source story will probably find Machine Gun Preacher to be worth the price of admission, but not a standout experience. The film will definitely help raise awareness for Childers’ continuing work around the world but many moviegoers may want to just visit MachineGunPreacher.org instead – and then wait for Childers’ upcoming, and hopefully superior, documentary.
If you’re still on the fence about Machine Gun Preacher, check out the trailer below:
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Machine Gun Preacher is now in theaters.