Greater has three surprises, which is three more than most faith-based films, particularly of the inspirational sports-movie variety.
First, while the film’s hero is the celebrated Arkansas Razorbacks offensive guard Brandon Burlsworth (Christopher Severio) — possibly the greatest walk-on player in college football history — the protagonist is not Brandon but his brother Marty, played by Neal McDonough of Arrow.
Second, while Brandon’s own faith never wavers, the film cross-examines Christian pieties and even faith itself to a greater degree than any other faith-based film I can think of. In a movie like God’s Not Dead, disbelief is a straw-man villain that exists solely to be vanquished and humiliated by the righteous hero. Here it’s a nagging voice in a grieving believer’s heart asking a question that admits no simple, final answer: Why do bad things happen to good people?
Third, it’s beautifully and atmospherically shot by director David Hunt and cinematographer Gabe Mayan. Dramatic backlighting and silhouettes create a sense of foreboding and uncertainty, resonating with the themes of tragedy and doubt. Creative camerawork is another asset; consider a moment of rapprochement lit by car headlights and filmed through swishing windshield wiper blades on a night of pouring rain. (Now we see through a glass darkly…)
The story unfolds in two strands. One, told in flashback, is a familiar, uplifting Rudy-like arc of an unpromising underdog who makes good despite enormous obstacles. Greater may not be in Rudy’s league cinematically, but Burlsworth was a far more gifted player than Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger. Named an All-American in 1998, he was drafted in 1999 by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round — 11 days before being killed in a vehicular accident.
Brandon doesn’t start out with all that promise. We first meet him as an overweight young couch potato (Ethan Waller) with apparent delusions of grandeur: He’s convinced he’s going to attend the University of Arkansas and play for the Razorbacks.
His brother Marty, 17 years his senior, berates him — “Cheesecake,” he calls him — for his indolence as well as their mother Barbara (Leslie Easterbrook) for her indulgence.
It’s clear, though, that Marty’s harshness is meant as the tough love of an older brother obliged to assume a father figure role in the absence of their alcoholic bum of a father (Michael Parks of the Kill Bill movies in a small but affecting role). The brothers’ age difference is the basis for one of the movie’s running gags, Marty’s discomfort at being mistaken for Brandon’s father.
Obese, unathletic, clumsy, Brandon confronts his shortcomings as sports underdog movie heroes have ever done: through determination, hard work, and a limitless capacity to absorb punishment, both physical and social.
Lacking the football scholarship he absurdly hoped for, Brandon turns down full rides elsewhere to attend Arkansas. When Marty asks Barbara how she justifies going deep into debt for Brandon’s quixotic dream, she says simply, “My son knows I have faith.” This could mean faith in God, but I took it to mean that money was no object if it meant Brandon knew his mother believed in him.
It goes without saying that Brandon, making the team as a walk-on (a player who is not recruited or offered an athletic scholarship), is harassed and abused by his teammates. Even when the coach is impressed with Brandon’s dedication, he isn’t exactly nurturing: I can’t think of another movie in which someone compares the hero to horse manure and it’s meant to be encouraging.
Brandon isn’t a very interesting character, but he’s a likable one. Unassuming, devout and a little dense, he never drinks, never swears, and never takes anything personally. He’s always taking a knee, and he crosses himself (a curious gesture, since from his funeral it seems his family is not Catholic).
He shows up at the stadium for practice long before anyone else is there — and when one of the coaches finds him, he’s idly picking up litter in the parking lot. Asked what he’s doing, Brandon says “Nothing,” because he really hadn’t given it a second thought.
All this plays out in flashback, with all the usual sports-movie clichés, training sequences, montages, comic relief and so forth. This has all been done, and sometimes done better, but the formula is sturdy, and Severio, in his first role, delivers well enough.
The present-day strand follows preparations for Brandon’s funeral and Marty’s internal struggle with doubt and nihilism, a struggle movingly realized by McDonough. (The devoutly Catholic McDonough, who also executive produced, has called Marty Burlsworth his favorite role.)
Marty’s struggle is not entirely internal. Nick Searcy plays an unnamed character who chats with Marty about the apparent absurdity of existence, and their discussion is a bold and unusual move, even a genre-bending move. As they chat, Searcy whittles a face on a block of wood, a symbolic quirk with a meaning made nearly explicit in a startling line.
I’m sure Josh Wheaton, the young apologist in God’s Not Dead, would know all the right things to say to Searcy’s character, but then Searcy wouldn’t be permitted to make his case so eloquently in a movie like God’s Not Dead, if he were allowed to appear at all.
Greater uses Marty to critique misguided or deficient forms of faith prior to Brandon’s death. Not as devout as his brother, Marty turns desperately to faith in a moment of crisis when he wants a miracle.
Surely, he reasons, God will be merciful; Marty would be, and he can’t be more merciful than God. Surely God will hear Brandon’s prayer if not his own; the prayer of a righteous man avails much, and if anyone is righteous, it’s Brandon. This one painful scene is wiser than all the movies the Fireproof / Courageous people have made (including their football movie, Facing the Giants).
Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? The movie’s response to this question comes in the form of a metaphor. At one point on the gridiron Brandon argues with a teammate that their perspective on the field is limited; the coach has information from a higher perspective, from a skybox where the whole field can be seen, and they need to trust him.
During Marty’s conversation with Searcy this metaphor is further developed; a pattern emerges that Marty can’t appreciate without a higher perspective. Greater’s response to the problem of evil, to disbelief and nihilism, is not an argument but an action: a choice to trust. It’s a simple but effective response, nicely underscored by the gospel anthem “I’ll Fly Away” running through the film.
A coda sums up the impact of Brandon’s life: the programs, scholarships and so forth established in his name. Even in earthly terms it can be argued that Brandon’s life and achievements were not a waste. Greater, though, looks to something more than this: something greater than any loss or tragedy.
The atheists and nonbelievers in The Case for Christ don’t have horns and tails, or even mustaches for twirling.
Like many popular sensations, from Titanic to Twilight, from Dan Brown to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, The Shack is easy to rip apart if one has a mind to.
Possibly the best and most cinematic sequence in Hillsong – Let Hope Rise is a montage that strikingly captures how the music of the Australian Evangelical church-based praise band Hillsong United touches, and unites, people all around the world.
On paper, and sometimes even on screen, there’s some promise and potential in this remake of Ben-Hur.
The recent beatification of Óscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 until his assassination in 1980, has drawn new attention to the gap between public perception and reality regarding this popular but controverted figure in El Salvador’s turbulent history. For those interested in beginning to understand who Blessed Archbishop Romero really was, the Christopher Award–winning 1989 film Romero, starring Raúl Juliá, isn’t a bad place to start.
Mirroring its populist tale pitting a devout young undergraduate against Kevin Sorbo’s hostile philosophy professor, the faith-based hit indie God’s Not Dead sharply divided enthusiastic faith audiences and scoffing critics.
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I took two minutes to talk about this one, and still got in less than half of what bothered me about it.
After ten years, Jesus is back on the big screen. Was it worth the wait? Son of God: my “Reel Faith” review.
For Greater Glory tells a story of religious freedom and oppression that is far too little known, and that would be important and worthwhile at any time, but is strikingly apropos in our cultural moment.
For Greater Glory in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Coming on the heels of Fireproof, Courageous is the fourth film from Sherwood Pictures, and it’s another step forward for the church-based film company … While the film’s church-based roots and the tendency toward didactic, schematic storytelling are still in evidence, Courageous is their most ambitious and watchable film to date.
The 13th Day is the best movie ever made about Fátima — the most beautiful and effective, as well as one of the most historically accurate.
The title reflects the supporting role of John Newton, played with gusto by Albert Finney, as a penitent ex-slave ship captain, now a mentor of sorts to Wilberforce as well as the writer of the beloved American hymn. (“A wretch like me,” Newton was not afraid to call himself in the original lyrics, with a biographical and theological honesty too direct for the revisionist vandals of hymnody responsible for many missalettes and hymnbooks.)
For Verástegui — a former boy-band and telenovela heartthrob known to Latino fans as “the Mexican Brad Pitt” — the mission is simple. “Hollywood doesn’t belong to the studios,” he recently told Decent Films. “Hollywood belongs to God. And we need to take it back. And that’s what I’m trying to do, by example first, trying my best every day to be involved in projects that will inspire people to use their talents to do something positive for the world.”
In the end, Bella has something to challenge everyone, pro-life or otherwise. For pro-lifers, the inspiring ending represents a call to love of neighbor. It isn’t enough just to oppose abortion: We are called to love those in need with the love of Christ, potentially at a cost to ourselves. For those who favor abortion, the ending represents a challenge to recognize that life is a beautiful and precious gift even in far from ideal circumstances, and the choice to embrace life, even when it involves great sacrifice, is also beautiful.
Christians lamenting the state of Hollywood sometimes flippantly comment that this or that Bible story “would make a great movie — intrigue, sex, violence, spectacle, etc.” This, though, is not a recipe for a great movie, but for a mediocre one. The story of Esther could certainly be made into a great film. One Night with the King is not that film. In some ways, it’s not even that story.
With fans of its two genres, especially in the Bible Belt, Facing the Giants will doubtless be a success. To reach a broader audience, though, the filmmakers will have to scrap their playbook and learn a whole new set of rules.
“Ordinary girl. Extraordinary soul” is the tagline of Thérèse, Catholic actor-director Leonardo Defilippis’s reverent, uplifting, straightforward biopic of the Little Flower. Of the tagline’s two clauses, the film’s special burden seems to be the first part, “ordinary girl.”
“A good compromise choice” is how one observer describes the 1977 appointment of Oscar Romero (Raul Julia) — a conservative, orthodox, apolitical bishop of a small rural diocese — to the archbishopric of San Salvador. By the time Archbishop Romero’s tempestuous three-year tenure comes to its violent end, “compromise” is a word no one will ever again think of in connection with him.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.