Christian films are having a moment. This weekend, as I sat in the darkened theater waiting for the feature to start (20 minutes of coming attractions and commercials—ugh), there were ads for three “faith-based” films. “Risen” is a story set during and after the Crucifixion as a Roman officer investigates the mysterious disappearance of Jesus of Nazareth from His burial chamber. Another biblically situated film, “Young Messiah,” is based on novelist Anne Rice’s speculative book about the boy Jesus, and there is also “Woodlawn,” a football and faith film based on actual events in early 1970s Birmingham, Alabama. These are following two recent releases, “War Room” and “90 Minutes in Heaven.”
These mixtures of the factual, fictional, and faithful are offering audiences the chance to see what filmmakers can do with differing types of narratives. They will have the challenge of measuring up to the movie I was there to see, “Captive,” based on another true story that many people will remember from 2005.
That was the year that cable news stations followed the shocking story of Brian Nichols’ violent escape from an Atlanta courthouse where he was to be tried for rape. Attacking a female guard and beating her into a coma, he took her gun, burst into the courtroom, and shot the judge presiding over the trial as well as the court stenographer and another officer. He then stole a series of vehicles, the last being the pickup truck of a Federal agent who became his fourth fatality. Late that night Nichols saw a young woman, Ashley Smith, outside her apartment building, grabbed her, and took her into her apartment.
Anyone who has seen the trailer, or recalls the news account, as I did, will know what happened next. Ashley, a recovering drug addict in a church recovery program, eventually began to read aloud from “The Purpose-Driven Life,” the bestselling Christian book by Pastor Rick Warren, which someone had given her. The film makes clear that both Smith and Nichols are both captives of desires that have cost them their freedom in different ways (Smith had lost custody of her young daughter until she could get clean).
That Brian Nichols later released Ashley Smith and surrendered is well known. What the film achieves is a docudrama that allows the story to speak for itself but employs two great actors to let us into the intimacy of what is, at its core, a two-character story.
Nichols, a former college football player, is played by David Oyelowo, acclaimed for his performance last year as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.” Smith is portrayed by Kate Mara (“House of Cards” and the upcoming “The Martian”). Both actors have to communicate a great deal through only their facial expressions and body language, with little to no dialogue. Directed by television veteran Jerry Jameson, the entire cast delivers in a low-key mode that resists the temptation to go melodramatic. One of the axioms of Hollywood films “based on actual events” is that screenwriters must impose a dramatic shape onto the historical facts. (Just compare the written and filmed versions of “American Sniper” and you’ll see the liberties taken with Chris Kyle’s account to make it fit a classic three-act structure, with an invented Iraqi counterpart of the title character and an exciting but fabricated climax.) Yet “Captive” screenwriter Brian Bird resisted such textbook imperatives, and hews more closely to the known facts, which are awful enough. This contributes to the understated tone of the film, which invites the audience to find the meaning in the showing rather than telling of events.
In the film, Ashley Smith still keeps a stash of meth in her apartment, having taken some earlier in the day. When Nichols snorts two lines and orders Smith to do the same, she faces a choice that will determine her fate. Later, when Nichols notices the Warren book and tells her to read to him, what could have felt like the worst example of an evangelical film contrivance works because of the naturalness in which the scene plays out. The words she reads come for both of them at just the right time: a life without purpose, not focused on a loving God, is indeed empty. The mysterious effect this truth has on both Smith and Nichols moves us toward the unlikely, but true, resolution of the story. It’s a reminder that the power of a good word, heard at the right moment, can open the gates of grace.
One reviewer has noted that the script makes Smith a novice to Christianity who has just been given the book. In fact, news reports have told us that the real Ashley had been reading the book, along with her Bible, for quite some time, and read more than the few lines from the book heard in the film that night. Does “Captive” mute her Christian commitment in order to make the characters more similar? And does this happen at the expense of a more dramatically plausible demonstration of why Nichols was moved enough to let Ashley leave the apartment and call the police? This might be the only place “Captive” misses a beat in its attempt not to seem preachy.
Nevertheless, this film demonstrates that if faith-based (don’t you just love that term?) movies have a future, it will be because people of faith and talent make them. David Oyelowo, known as an outspoken Christian, has a producer credit on “Captive.” Last June, at a conference sponsored by Variety, he stated, “I’m not interested in Bible-thumping or beating anyone over the head with the Gospel. But what I am interested in is talking about love, talking about goodness, talking about light in spite of a dark world, and letting that be reflected in my work. And if someone asks me, I will tell them who I am and what I believe, but the work is where I do my real talking.”
When high-voltage but unbelieving filmmakers turn to Bible stories, the results are mixed and controversial (Exhibits A and B: “Noah” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings”). At the other end of the spectrum, earnest but inexperienced Christians can seek to proclaim God’s greatness in fictional stories that rig the game, contriving plots in order to make us believers look good and our cultural opponents wrong. If we are called to be witnesses of the grace of God, perhaps we should try to make more stories like “Captive,” that testify to what really happened, displaying the power of a changed life, like Ashley Smith’s. Hollywood has always loved redemption stories. Let’s give them some more true, well-made ones.
Image copyright Paramount Pictures. “Captive” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements involving violence and substance abuse.
Alex Wainer, Ph.D., is the author of “Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Hero in Comics and Film.” He teaches communication and media at Palm Beach Atlantic University.