Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt: 12 Angry Men and the true nature of justice

The opening shot of 12 Angry Men shows us the towering pillars of an unnamed court building. At the top of this building, we see a quote from George Washington: “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.”

When Sydney Lumet’s debut feature was released 60 years ago in 1957, it’s safe to say he and many Americans may have felt those words to be hollow. What was justice to the hundreds of black men being lynched across the nation? Although “separate but equal” facilities had been outlawed three years earlier, the justice system surely didn’t feel like a safe, reliable institution to many African-Americans and other minorities whose wounds were as fresh as their memories.

Today, we have the world at our fingertips. We were promised technology would erase these divisions, these wounds. That scientific progress would necessitate a moral shift. Anyone who spends time on the internet would quickly find such a promise to be unfulfilled.

What’s so astonishing about this classic courtroom drama is that it speaks so clearly to the current state of public discourse and justice in the United States, just as it did 60 years ago.

The film’s set up is simple: a jury of 12 men is tasked with deciding whether to send a Puerto Rican teenager to the electric chair for murdering his father, or declare him not guilty of the crime. Eleven of the men are immediately prepared to declare him guilty, but one abstains. Juror number 8, played by Henry Fonda, offers up a simple request: “I just want to talk.” Number 8 reminds the other jurors that the point of justice is to prove culpability beyond a shadow of a doubt. We have no doubts, the other men say. And yet, over the next few hours, he slowly and methodically convinces every single one of them to admit that they don’t have all the answers, and in fact are relying more on their own prejudices and preconceptions than any objective view of the facts.

Of course, none of the other men are aware of this. In their mind, the evidence is clear. But the jury deliberation room is sweltering, and they all have lives to get back to, after all.

This past election cycle, I was reminded of how entrenched most Americans are. We have our own news channels, our own friend group and our own community gatherings. We have a hard time putting ourselves in others’ shoes because we don’t know what an “other” looks like, what he thinks and feels and believes. Our opinions validate us, and so we fear changing them, even when the facts would otherwise compel us to consider a different perspective.

According to the film, that’s a damn shame. Many of the other jurors are, perhaps understandably, upset at #8’s insistence on having a discussion. Doesn’t he see what’s staring him right in the face? His main opposition is juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), an emotional man who nonetheless proclaims a firm commitment to the facts. What about the multiple eyewitnesses? The boy’s flimsy alibi? The physical evidence, such as the unique knife found at the scene? How can you go against such overwhelming evidence?

The answer, according to juror 8, is simply to ask questions. “We’re talking about someone’s life here,” he says. “We can’t just decide it in 5 minutes. Supposing we’re wrong.”

12 Angry Men reminds us that true justice is impeded as long as we refuse to question our assumptions or admit that we might be wrong.

In post-truth America, “wrong” might as well be a swear word. We’re taught that if we feel a certain way about something, than it must be true. But…what if.

“I don’t have personal feelings about this. I just wanna talk about the facts,” juror 3 says, as if doing so were even possible. Our emotions often make true impartiality impossible.

One of the things that makes 12 Angry Men so memorable is the fact that there are no villains. The men who most vehemently oppose juror 8 aren’t monsters, they’re simply doing what they feel is right. But right and wrong should never be determined by how we feel about something.

This is driven home in perhaps the film’s most powerful scene, when juror 10 (Ed Begley) loses himself in a racist rant about “those people” who live in the slums.

“Violence—that’s their nature,” he says. “Human life doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to us.”

Slowly, each man stands up and turns his back to juror 10, as he continues to fumble for words. Even in an environment where everyone has a voice, not all viewpoints deserve equal treatment. The look on juror 10’s face as he realizes how deeply entrenched his prejudice has become and how blind it has made him is a true acting feat, and it’s the moment that sways the stubborn man’s verdict. He knows now that the things he believes in the shadows, spoken out, are heinous and underserving of acknowledgement.

How do we treat the racists we encounter, the people who refer to African-Americans as “thugs” or even make causal jokes about Asian drivers? Thanks to the internet, the Alex Joneses and David Dukes of the world have a platform to speak their controversial opinions. But we often acknowledge these thoughts by trolling them on Twitter, by reacting against them in force. Like the jurors in the film, I wonder if protesting such hate speech would be more effective if we simply stayed silent, a universal sign that some opinions are not valid and will not be acknowledged as such.

“Wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth,” Juror 8 says towards the end of the film. And, in this room full of average, relatable, well-meaning men, we certainly see plenty of that adage in action. My initial reaction to that quote is to remind the juror that prejudice is everywhere, and that’s why the “true administration of justice” is so hard. We are not, by nature, factually driven, rational animals. We are not Spock.

But, I can hear the juror responding, we don’t have to be. True justice begins to peek between the curtains of blind hatred and prejudice when we take the simple step of acknowledging that we might be wrong. This isn’t a decision someone else can make for us. And, in an age of Twitter flame wars and internet trolls, it’s not an easy one to stand by. But to do otherwise is to risk our own humanity.

Sixty years later, I pray there is still time to take the lessons these 12 Angry Men have learned to heart.

My top 10 Best Picture Oscar winners

With the 89th Academy Awards ceremony right around the corner, it’s a great time to reflect upon the storied history of this prestigious ceremony. Thankfully, I’m in a great position to do that, having recently finished watching every winner of the Academy’s top prize, the coveted Best Picture.

The history behind this award alone is enough to fill volumes, and it certainly doesn’t come without controversy. For every Godfather, there’s a baffling winner like Tom Jones or The Broadway Melody, films that may have had something to say in their time, but by today’s standards seem woefully inadequate. Then there’s the good films that nonetheless remain divisive choices. How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane? Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction? Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas? The King’s Speech over The Social Network?

Despite some headscratchers, it should come as no surprise that the Best Picture statue counts among its members some of the finest films ever made. I’m here to share what I think are the very best of the best. These are not necessarily the most iconic winners, or the “best” by snooty critic standards (although I think most of them are). They’re simply my favorite. So please, enjoy and for heaven’s sake, disagree. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be any fun.

10. On the Waterfront (1954)

There are few performances more iconic that Marlon Brando’s blistering portrayal of Terry Malloy, a down-on-his luck former boxer turned longshoreman who risks his job and safety to protest his corrupt union bosses. Even the casual moviegoer can probably recite the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech, whether they’ve seen the film or not. Thankfully, the film surrounding Brando is equally top notch, filled with typically sensational direction from Elia Kazan and a potent and powerful message of perseverance in the face of persecution.  The film has certainly stood the test of time, and it doesn’t seem set to go out of style anytime soon. It is currently ranked 19th on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films of all time.

 

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The conclusion to Peter Jackson’s fantasy epic broke the mold in more ways than one. It was the first fantasy film to take home the top prize. And, like Lawrence of Arabia before it, it redefined the default when people think of the quintessential Hollywood epic. Some would say that the Academy’s overwhelmingly lavish praise of the film (it took home a whopping 11 statues) was a way to honor the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, if that’s the case, at least they saved the accolades for one of the finest franchises ever put to screen. What’s not to love about Tolkien’s timeless tale? Jackson, along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, crafted a near-perfect adaptation, with pitch-perfect casting choices and some of the finest battles sequences ever put to film. Even better, ROTK never lost the emotional core of the story, the friendship between hobbits Sam and Frodo. Both tragic and stirring, heartbreaking yet hopeful, gigantic and yet, at times, painfully intimate, this was truly an epic for the ages.

8. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

One of the finest war films ever made doesn’t contain a single battle sequence.  William Wyler’s timely drama deals instead with the aftermath of soldiers returning home from war. The film follows three soldiers as they return from the war and attempt to re-adjust to civilian life. But each faces their own particular struggles, from Homer’s (Harold Russel, in an Oscar-winning role) insecurity over his battlefield deformity to Fred’s (Dana Andrews) difficulty in holding down a job. This is an intimate, often painful yet ultimately hopeful tale. Bring the tissues, because it’s a weepie in the best sense of the word. Even in its more melodramatic moments, it earns every emotion. The Best Years of our Lives is pretty much perfect, and a fine example of Hollywood message making done right.

7. Unforgiven (1992)

Who would have thought that Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of the western genre that made him famous would end up being his finest? Unforgiven earns major accolades as we see in retired gunslinger Bill Munny (played by Eastwood) what kind of man the actor’s earlier roles may have turned out to be. Rarely has the audience felt more guilty watching a western—the violence is brutal, the emotions pained, and the ramifications of revenge given their full weight. Not since The Searchers has a western so painfully pulled the audience into its world of greed, corruption and men who think they’re above the law. Throw in a fantastic villain (played by Gene Hackman) and a sensitive companion (Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan) and you have a classic that manages to be a gripping genre piece while throwing away so much of what made the classical western what it was. It’s truly unforgettable.

6. Schindler’s List (1993)

No top Best Picture list would be complete without Steven Spielberg’s tour-de-force, an iconic film about one of the worst things to ever happen in the history of humanity. Making a holocaust film is no easy task, and the normally fanciful Spielberg faced much skepticism as to whether he could pull off a story with so much weight. But pull it off he did, to uniformly spectacular results. The black-and-white cinematography is striking, as is the haunting and brutal imagery. This is a tough film to watch, but one that dares you to look away. It’s also one of the most “important” films to ever win Best Picture, but don’t let that turn you off from just how good it is. At the center is Oskar Schindler, and Liam Neeson plays him with an enviable amount of heart and depth. Schindler’s transformation from willing Nazi accomplice to active resistor and eventual saver of thousands of Jews is the emotional crux of the film, and Neeson doesn’t miss a beat. Schindler’s List is a great tragedy about a great tragedy, but it restores hope in the resiliency of the human spirit and the capacity for goodness in the midst of history’s great evil. An absolutely essential film.

5. The Deer Hunter (1978)

For a time, I considered Michael Cimino’s brilliant examination of soldiers coming home from Vietnam to be my favorite war film. It’s still up there. In terms of films that deal directly with the Vietnam conflict, The Deer Hunter was the first and, in my mind, the best (with all respect to Apocalypse Now, which somehow lost the top prize to Kramer vs. Kramer one year later).  Like The Best Years of Our Lives before it, the film deals painfully and intimately with the ramifications of the war on those returning home, as well as the loved ones waiting for them. This is a much darker film, dealing explicitly with the terrifying depths man can sink to when he no longer knows anything but violence. Christopher Walken represents this theme in one of the great tragic roles, but the film is filled with a who’s-who of acting greats in their early days, including Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and John Cazale. The film is probably best known for it’s “Russian roulette” sequence, but even in its quieter moments, it remains gripping and essential.

4. Gone with the Wind (1939)

One of the most lavish and iconic films in Hollywood history, Gone with the Wind took home the top prize in what is often considered Hollywood’s greatest year. It beat out legendary films like The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights. Watching the film today, it doesn’t take too long to realize why it rose above such advanced pedigree. It’s the absolute crowning jewel of the Hollywood studio system, one that pushed the boundaries of what we though was possible in film, from its gorgeous color cinematography to its epic Civil War setting and four-hour run time, not to mention its (for the time) gasp-worthy swear.

Equally iconic are the performances, from Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh’s portrayal as on-again off-again lovers to Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal as Mammy the house servant. McDaniel won an Oscar for the role, being the first black woman to win best supporting actress and showing an early sign of the Academy’s occasional clear-headedness in pushing the boundaries of diversity in film. Gone with the Wind set the standard for the grand Hollywood epic, and, almost 70 years later, it still hasn’t been beaten.

3. The Godfather (1972)/The Godfather Part II (1974)

Normally, it would be easy to pick The Godfather for this list, but, surprisingly, its sequel also took home the top prize two years later. Because this is my list and I can do what I want, they’re both getting the mention here. Not since Gone with the Wind had a film so enraptured audiences and critics, and, since its release, The Godfather has arguably surpassed even that legendary film (it ranks 2nd on AFI’s top 100, just behind Citizen Kane; Part II ranks 32nd). It’s so easy to see why Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping crime epic pulled a two-fer—both films share the same panache for grand scope, perfect structure, iconic moments and some of the finest performances ever put to film. From Marlon Brando’s legendary role as Don Corleone to Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall (not to mention Robert DeNiro in part II), every performances is flawless.

There’s not much to say about these films that hasn’t already been said. They’re perfect, and no film has quite matched their pure craftsmanship since. Every mob film since lives in their long shadows.

2. Casablanca (1942)

The greatest romance ever put to screen, Casablanca has arguably the most memorable dialogue in movie history (even if people still misquote the “Play it Again, Sam” line). The Morocco-circa-WWII-set classic is also a profoundly successful genre mashup, mixing classic Hollywood romance with war and mystery/thriller trappings. Certainly, the stark black-and-white cinematography and unforgettable performances from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman help to solidify this as an undisputed classic. But what truly cements it for me is the screenplay, perhaps the finest ever written (with the possible exception of my number one choice). Despite the fame of its many classic lines, the dialogue never exactly calls attention to itself. It’s memorable simply by being really damn good. This is essential viewing for anyone with a pulse.

1. Amadeus (1984)

Anyone who knows me well would expect this film to occupy my top slot. Not only my favorite Best Picture, it is perhaps my favorite film of all time (certainly a solid top 5). Peter Shaffer’s adaptation of his stage play about the artistic rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) has been the envy of screenwriters everywhere for more than 30 years. How can one script pack in so much depth, so much emotion, so many thought-provoking themes about the nature of artistic expression? It’s beyond comprehension, and to watch the film is to be in pure awe of its sheer brilliance.

Sure, Amadeus plays fast and loose with the facts of history, but it was never meant to be a historical biopic. Instead, Shaffer and director Milos Forman use historical figures as a jumping-off point for a far more fascinating exploration of the nature of the relationship between God and man. Salieri is the traditional good boy, one who prays with devotion and follows all of the rules in hopes that God may touch him with artistic genius. He’s the classic legalist, expecting and (eventually) demanding that God reward his good behavior with earthly success.

As Salieri’s foil, Mozart is the man gifted, seemingly from birth, with brilliance, touched by the hand of God. Mozart’s genius is surely unmerited—he’s a hedonistic blaggard, a foul-mouthed, immature and petulant child, which of course enrages Salieri all the more. Why would God grant such a gift to one so undeserving? These questions and themes are given more thoughtful consideration here than in any other film I’ve seen, and the result is breathtaking.

The script’s brilliance is bolstered by the potent performances, including Abraham’s Oscar-winning turn as Salieri. It’s a savage and tragic character study, as a devout man slowly but quite deliberately turns into a vengeful monster. And Hulce’s work as Mozart is much more nuanced than it initially appears. Perhaps, for a good chunk of the film, the audience actually sides with Salieri. But, as Mozart begins to reveal shades to his character, we actually see that he perhaps doesn’t quite deserve Salieri’s vengeful wrath.

Naturally, the music only elevates the film even further. It’s some of the best ever written, and seeing it performed on screen is nothing short of a revelation. Amadeus is a gift to the world of cinema, and one I will never tire of watching. It is, in my opinion, the best Best Picture.

Runners-up: It was a tough job narrowing my list down to 10. These are the next 10, in no particular order, which would get my vote:

The Sound of Music

My Fair Lady

West Side Story

Lawrence of Arabia

All About Eve

12 Years a Slave

It Happened One Night

Ben Hur

In the Heat of the Night

Gentleman’s Agreement

The Top 10 Films of 2016

The general consensus on the year 2016 was that, well…it sucked. And that is mostly true. But one area of exception was the cinema. I thought this past year was a rather glorious one for film lovers. Which makes picking my 10 favorite films so much more difficult. Surely, another 10 could have easily taken the spots of what I chose here. And yet, these are the choices. They’re the films that left me profoundly moved, or in tears, or rejoicing. Film is an emotional medium, and every movie featured here earned that emotion in ways both big and small. Without further ado, here are my top 10 films of 2016.

10. Sing Street

This feels like the proper follow-up to John Carney’s sensational indie Once, rather than the underwhelming Begin Again. Thankfully, the director proves he’s more than a one-trick pony, with a much more upbeat and joyous tale about a Catholic schoolboy in the 1980s who starts a rock band to (of course) impress a girl. The film is a marvel of clever humor and pure, simple emotion, something Carney excels at. There is a cornucopia of references to the music scene of the 80s, but more impressive are the original songs. They’re catchy, creative, and feel like they could have come straight out of the time period. Carney’s passion for music shines through in every frame, and that’s not something you can fake.

9. Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water may at first seem like your typical cops-and-robbers tale, but David MacKenzie’s richly textured, deeply human drama is so much more. In the era of Trump, this is the film that got white, blue-collar dissatisfaction and ennui better than any other. That’s mostly due to Taylor Sheridan’s dialogue, which is poetic but still feels very lived-in (it’s also, blessedly, quite funny). But it’s also due to the soulful performances. Chris Pine and Ben Foster have never been better as brothers pushed to the edge of their circumstances by people with more power and wealth than they, and Jeff Bridges is, again, a marvel as the ranger tasked with hunting them down. His Marcus Hamilton’s friendship with fellow sheriff Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) is more affecting than the vast majority of on-screen romances we saw this year. It’s characters like this that prove to us this film is operating on an entirely different and completely successful level.

8. Jackie

Much ado has been made about Natalie Portman’s astonishing transformation into Jackie Kennedy for this film. And the praise is well-deserved. But the film around her, which follows Jackie in the hours and days after her husband’s assassination, is equally worthy of recognition. Pablo Larrain’s drama is emotionally gripping and gorgeously shot by Stephane Fontaine, who fills scenes with delirious close-ups as we begin to feel the claustrophobic anxiety Jackie surely felt in the aftermath of one of the most devastating days in American history. Mica Levi’s Oscar-worthy score also contributes to that mood. But the main reason Jackie stays in my mind is its message that trials shape the people we become, that hardship refines us and, perhaps, even gives us a glimpse of God’s grace. For a culture that tries to actively avoid pain, that is an essential reminder.

7. Kubo and the Two Strings

Pixar often gets the highest praise for creating quality animated films both kids and adults can enjoy, but stop-motion auteurs Laika have been given them a run for their money for years with unforgettable stories like Coraline and ParaNorman. Kubo and the Two Strings is their masterpiece, and the best animated film of the year. The impossibly gorgeous papercraft-like visuals bolster an epic and emotional journey through ancient Japanese myth, as Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) enlists the help of a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed samurai (Matthew McConaughey) to take down his menacing sorcerer aunts (Rooney Mara) and grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Finnes). This is a wondrous tale about the power of storytelling itself, with a strong voice cast and richly defined and memorable characters. It’s an adventure that will hopefully be treasured by kids and adults for years to come.

6. Silence

Martin Scorsese’s long-in-gestation passion project is an incredibly faithful and reverent adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s seminal novel about Jesuit priests in 17th Century Japan. It’s also one of the most powerful films about faith in crisis ever made. As part of the legendary director’s unofficial “spiritual” trilogy (which also includes The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun), Silence is the best. Scorsese and Jay Cocks wisely took much of their dialogue straight from the novel, and refusing to mess with perfection turned out to be a smart move. This grueling but deeply moving journey is an important one for our time, where a Christian is martyred for their faith every five minutes. Andrew Garfield has had a pretty great year, but I think his performance as the tortured priest Sebastian Rodriguez surpasses his work in Hacksaw Ridge. And Adam Driver and Liam Neeson’s supporting performances command attention every minute they’re on screen.

Silence is a very personal and spiritual film, but, like all good art, its questions run deeper than their specific context. What does it mean to love? What does it mean to suffer? And, can a God of justice allow both of those things to exist, perhaps simultaneously? The film is probably too long, and Scorsese’s touch is a tad less subtle than Endo’s (particularly in the ending). But movies don’t get much more passionate, personal and powerful than this.

5. The Lobster

The Lobster is the funniest, and also one of the saddest, movies of the year. Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurd, pitch black satire is one of this generation’s most brilliant commentaries on modern romance (and, naturally, the loneliness that lies therein). The ever-brilliant Colin Ferrell leads a marvelous cast as we spend some surreal time at a hotel where single people are sent to find mates. The catch? They have 45 days to succeed, or they will be transformed into the animal of their choice. “Guests” can extend their time by hunting down and tranquilizing escaped single people in the nearby forest.

The film sounds absolutely bonkers, and it is. But Lanthimos is a mad genius, and he always leads us somewhere interesting and profound. Despite its absurdity, the film has some very deep things to say about modern humanity’s isolationist tendencies, and how such existential loneliness seeps into our relationships. Whether it’s brilliantly insane or insanely brilliant, it’s not a film anyone who sees it will soon forget.

4. Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece has been the darling of the indie and awards circuits, and it’s easy to see why. This is painfully intimate filmmaking of the caliber we rarely see in contemporary cinema. In terms of movies that ponder what it means to be a man in the modern world, it’s right up there with Boyhood in terms of its lingering and haunting impact. Jenkins’ camera focuses on three periods in the life of a gay black man in a rough neighborhood of Miami. But the story stays universal in its ruminations on modern masculinity. As someone who is neither black nor gay, I still found plenty I could relate to. Men are taught not to be fragile, and black men in particular feel the pressure to act tough, to be someone who can handle himself on the streets. This theme is built into the film’s very structure, where the main character is referred to as Little (as a child), Chiron (as a teenager, his real name) and, finally, simply Black.

Jenkins conveys the cycle that exists in many black communities, when Chiron, himself a victim of drug culture, ends up as a drug dealer. It’s devastating but realistic, as is his complicated relationship with his childhood best friend, Kevin. The script is brilliant, but the film is pushed even farther by the impeccable camerawork and the unforgettable performances. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron at the three stages, but Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali provide equally praise-worthy supporting performances. This is what you might call “essential” cinema; not always easy to watch, but so very valuable and unforgettable.

3. Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s films have a sneaky habit of winding up on my top 10 lists, and Arrival does little to break the trend. In fact, it’s his most accomplished film to date, and, in my mind, and instant sci-fi classic. It takes a complex and fascinating look at the fact that, despite humanity’s access to technology, we are worse at communicating than ever. Amy Adams gives one of her best performances as Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is asked to board one of twelve mysterious floating pods that have appeared around the globe. The question: what are our mysterious tentacle visitors’ intentions, as they stay safely nestled in their pods? Why have they come, and how long before they get tired of waiting for us to figure them out?

Focusing the story on a linguist was a brilliant move, and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay deserves high praise for keeping the layered and sometimes jargon-heavy dialogue from becoming unintelligible. In fact, the film’s focus is clear, as is its message that fear does not motivate successful politics. In a fraught and divisive election year, this was a grave reminder. Like the best science fiction, Arrival speaks to our modern world with a clear and prophetic voice. The fact that it’s so deeply human, that it’s filled with haunting imagery, stellar performances and amazing music, is much welcome icing on an already delicious cake. You won’t be getting this one out of your head for a long time.

2. La La Land

What a miracle of a movie this is! Hot off the heels of his stellar Whiplash, Damien Chazelle has crafted a musical both modern and old-fashioned in its sensibilities. This is the kind of film where the passion of its creation radiates from every frame, bolstered by amazing performances (who knew Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone could sing and dance?), unforgettable music and the magic of pure Hollywood craftsmanship.

La La Land is a love letter to so many things that make this world wonderful: jazz music, movies, Los Angeles and impossible dreams. It’s joyful, but refuses to settle for the happy Hollywood ending. It’s simple, but manages complexity from its richly layered characters and astonishingly good cinematography and production design. This is a film that truly fires on all cylinders; every aspect is given the utmost care and attention to detail. I remember watching it and thinking, “they didn’t have to make it this good.” Indeed, they could have gotten away with much less. But here’s to those foolish dreamers who had a vision and put 110% into it all the way. The result? A little more joy in the world. That’s something we should all be grateful for.

1. Manchester by the Sea

Movies don’t get any closer to perfection than this. Every aspect of Kenneth Lonergan’s tragic, funny, relatable drama has been polished to a fine sheen. The performances? Casey Affleck has never been better, Michelle Williams left tears in my eyes, and Lucas Hedges brought the feels with his layered role as a teenager coping with the loss of his father. The writing? Heartfelt and lived-in. Every line has an impact, every scene filled with the meaning needed for that particular moment. The direction? We are clearly in the hands of a master. The musical score? Incredible.

Manchester is the best manifestation of the themes present throughout the films featured on this list. Coping with grief. Persevering in the midst of suffering. Holding onto hope, to dreams, to goodness, to identity; even when the world around you threatens to strip those things away. It’s a film with many brutally sad moments, but, amazingly, it’s not a sad movie. It reminds us that life is very much worth living, even when things are hard. Even when things don’t make sense. We may not always see the grand plan, but persevering through everyday ordinary living is its own form of sacrifice. And such sacrifice does not go unrewarded.

Honorable Mentions: As I said previously, this was a great year. It pains me to leave off stellar films like 13th, Hacksaw Ridge, Hail Caesar!, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Sully, Midnight Special, Green Room, Zootopia, Birth of a Nation, Last Days in the Desert, Rogue One and Captain Fantastic, to name just a few. But too many great movies is a pretty good problem to have!

Blind spots: Fences, Toni Erdmann, Loving, The Handmaiden, Love and Friendship, A Monster Calls, Nocturnal Animals, Moana and Lion, among others.

“God’s lonely man:” Celebrating 40 years of Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver is celebrating 40 years, and since I consider it my all-time favorite film, it stands to reason that I may have something to say about it. I said a lot, actually, when I analyzed the film for a college paper. I can’t imagine I could ever say it any better than I did then, so I decided to publish that paper here. It’s long, but I couldn’t bear to cut very much; I’m proud of this work, and grateful for everyone involved in the making of the film for crafting and enduring and thought-provoking classic. A 40th Anniversary Blu-ray is set to release Nov. 8. 

Ever since it was first released in 1976, Taxi Driver has been hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, and its director, Martin Scorsese, has stood the test of time as one of the world’s great directors. The film garnered four 1976 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, and won the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. Today, Taxi Driver is ranked number 52 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 American films of all time, along with other Scorsese films Goodfellas and Raging Bull.  In their book The Greatest Movies Ever, Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza rank it as the 15th greatest film of all time, American or otherwise, and the influential director and astute film critic Quentin Tarantino cites it in his top three. It’s safe to say that Taxi Driver has had an indelible and important impact on the history film. The film, however, is ethically troubling for several reasons. In portraying the seedy side of New York City, the film shows pimps, child prostitutes, graphic violence, and harsh language in a raw and unfiltered manner. Additionally, in its portrayal of the mental deterioration of a war veteran driven to madness by the world around him, the film can be a tough one to watch. In analyzing this film from an ethical and theological perspective, it is important to first analyze the “auteur” of the film as well as both the positive and negative ways in which this film has influenced the culture around it.

Many film critics and historians would consider Martin Scorsese to be one of the greatest living directors, if not the greatest. Raised on strong Roman Catholic roots, Scorsese desired to enter the seminary until he decided that his passions would fit much better in film. One of the forerunners of the “film school generation,” he graduated with a film degree from New York University in 1964. His first major film was Mean Streets, a film that would establish many of the themes and styles that would become hallmarks of most Scorsese films. The film world would never quite be the same again.

Robert DeNiro, delivering his legendary performance as Travis Bickle in a scene from Taxi Driver.

Robert DeNiro, delivering his legendary performance as Travis Bickle in a scene from Taxi Driver.

In his body of work, Scorsese often presents lonely characters, outsiders who find themselves in an unfamiliar social context that they are unable to overcome. In this way, Scorsese reflects the fact that, contrary to what we often believe, society can have ultimate and final victory over the individual. In Taxi Driver, that society is reflected by the city itself. Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, returns to the real world and is disgusted. He finds that he does not fit in with the rest of humanity. “Loneliness has followed me my whole life,” Travis says. “Everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”

“GOD’S LONELY MAN”

This “God’s lonely man” theme has become a hallmark of Scorsese films. In Raging Bull, the lonely man is Jake LaMotta, a man who has been trained in the boxing ring to feel nothing but rage. When he is confronted with real life, he does not know how to turn off that rage, and thus he treats all of his friends and loved ones as he would an opponent in the boxing ring. Similarly, in The King of Comedy, the lonely man is Rupert Pupkin, a struggling comedian who, despite his best attempts to cope with life’s tragedies through humor, is unable to realize that the rest of the world isn’t laughing. Even Jesus Christ, in Scorsese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ can be considered a “lonely man.” The burden of living a sinless life is one that no other person on earth shares or has ever shared. The expectations on him were tremendous, and no one was ever lonelier that Christ, during that moment on the cross where God his father forsook him. The difference here, of course, is that, while it may seem like society got the better of him (he was brutally crucified by the government), in reality Christ conquered the societal pressures around him by conquering death itself.

Another important theme that runs throughout Scorsese’s oeuvre is the concept that our occupation, or “calling,” will inevitably define who we are, for better or worse (often worse). In Taxi Driver, Travis’s friend, the Wizard, puts it like this. “A man takes a job, and that becomes what he is. You become the job.” In Travis’s case, the “job” of night taxi driver, which he takes because of his insomnia that he assumingly incurred from Vietnam, allows him to come into contact with the “animals” that “come out at night.” He sees the corruption and depravity of the world around him, and, as a result, feels that it his destiny to change the world around him for the “better.” Travis reflects upon this “destiny” when he says “My whole life has been pointed in one direction. There never has been any choice for me.” Unfortunately, his methods, while perhaps well-intentioned, are destructive and violent in the extreme, and the audience can’t help but wonder whether his destiny was something else (to die in Vietnam, perhaps)?

This (sometimes dichotomous) relationship between occupation and individuality is evident in many other Scorsese films. In Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta’s career as a boxer defines who he is; there is almost no separation between LaMotta in the ring and LaMotta in real life. His occupation has, in a sense, written his life’s story, and this leads to alienation and misery as his life crumbles around him. Once again, The Last Temptation of Christ provides another great (and more positive) example, as Christ, despite the temptation to remain fully human, to come down off of the cross and live a normal life, embraces his destiny to be the savior of mankind. Ultimately, it is not his temptation, but, rather his ability to live a sinless life in spite of that temptation, that defines him.

One of the more interesting techniques that Scorsese uses in many of his films is the subtle rejection of traditional gender roles. While men may have the physical power, women often hold the emotional and spiritual power, and it is this power that often leads the men to destruction, or at least the threat of it. In Taxi Driver, Travis first sees Betsy and immediately singles her out as a potential exception to the “scum” around him. “She appeared like an angel out of this filthy mass,” Travis narrates. “She is alone, they cannot touch her.” When she first appears, Betsy is wearing a white dress, and is shot with high light in comparison to the other people walking down the street. In this way, Betsy takes on a sort of angelic presence in Travis’ (and the audience’s) mind. When Betsy ultimately rejects him, Travis decides that, if love cannot help him escape the sickness of the world around him, perhaps violence can. Betsy has become the catalyst through which Travis heads on his path of “destiny.”

From the very beginning of his career, Scorsese has had an eye for women. He has seen them as strong, independent and powerful, as well as dangerous. In one of his first feature films, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese explores the theme of female independence and empowerment through the character of Alice, who is determined to not let the memory of her deceased husband haunt her. She wants to live a full life without the shadow of a man hovering over her. In Raging Bull, women hold a tremendous power over Jake. To him, women are something to be conquered, and, once they are, he wants to move on to the next. But, Jake discovers that it isn’t as easy as he might have hoped, and his wife leaving him for good at the end of the film proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, tossing him into a bottomless pit of despair and loneliness that he cannot escape. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill’s wife, Karen, holds a tremendous power over him, convincing him to try and leave the mob life for good. She is often presented as a stronger character than Henry, helping him handle the mob business with a clear and rational head. In Shutter Island, the deceased wife of Teddy Daniels holds a much more sinister power over him, providing the impetus for his paranoid, schizophrenic delusions. Scorsese takes things a step farther in The Last Temptation of Christ, where Mary Magdalene inadvertently puts the redemption of all humanity at risk. She holds a kind of sinful power over Jesus, the kind that tempts him to run away with her and live an ordinary, fully human life.

Ellen Burstyn in a scene from Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, one of Scorsese's earliest flims, viewed by many as a feminist classic.

Ellen Burstyn in a scene from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, one of Scorsese’s earliest flims, viewed by many as a feminist classic.

A SPIRITUAL FILMMAKER 

In discussing Scorsese as an “auteur,” a critic would be remiss to reject his spiritual background and Roman Catholic roots. Scorsese himself once said “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.” Indeed, while his films are not overtly evangelistic (in fact, they often seem quite the opposite), it is impossible to provide a full analysis of Scorsese’s work apart from this Catholic lens. The way in which this background is expressed is through the culture that he and his characters inhabit—the culture of the streets. As Scorsese narrates at the beginning of Mean Streets, “You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.” Throughout his work, Scorsese presents a kind of religion of the streets— a spirituality that comes from the natural world of human relationship, rather than from a confession booth. He presents a world that is undeniably corrupted by sin, and a humanity that is fallen. When it comes to God, there are no easy answers for Scorsese, and grace is rarely a way out for his characters, particularly because most of them choose such destructive paths to begin with. In Taxi Driver, Travis hopes that “someday, a rain will come and wash these scum off of the streets.” He realizes that humanity needs a redemptive rain to come and wash away our sins, but he is not sure where this rain will come from. There is often a kind of terrible grace amidst the chaos of this world, a grace that, while we may not be able to always see it, is there nonetheless.

Another spiritual theme inherent in Scorsese’s films is the notion of Catholic guilt, a concept that he has struggled with throughout his life. Catholic guilt is the concept that many Catholics and lapsed Catholics feel an especially heavy guilt because they place so much emphasis on personal responsibility for their salvation. Thus, the threat of hell (or purgatory) becomes more and more real as Catholics shirk their responsibilities, such as partaking in the Eucharist and making frequent trips to the confessional booth. This guilt and fear of hell is expressed by Charlie in Mean Streets. “It’s all bullshit except the pain. The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, ya don’t fuck around with the infinite. There’s no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hands and the kind you can feel in your heart, your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know, the worst of the two is the spiritual.” Many Catholics fear the pain of eternal separation from God, but are unable to reconcile this fear with the way they live their lives. Perhaps Richard Blake put it best when speaking of characters in the work of Catholic filmmakers such as Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. “Their struggles are rarely couched in spiritual terms, but they are inevitably religious quests within milestones along the way marked by Catholic images. The Catholic imagination is more than Catholic, more than sacramental—it is profligate. It sees the workings of grace everywhere.” Perhaps this grace can somehow be found even amidst the moral depravity of the world that Scorsese’s gangsters, drug dealers and lunatics inhabit.

When examining film from a cultural perspective, it is important to ask how the viewer’s social situation influences the way they experience a movie, and vice versa. Throughout his career, Scorsese has had to wrestle with this question more than most filmmakers. Taxi Driver, in particular, had a much larger impact on the audience and society than the filmmakers had perhaps intended.

THE TIME AND PLACE OF TAXI DRIVER 

Taxi Driver is a film that is best admired and appreciated through the social context in which it was originally created. Under that lens, the primary issue the film raises from a cultural perspective is the after-effects of the Vietnam War on veterans as well as society in general. After the war, which brought terrifyingly brutal technology and plenty of painful new ways to die to the art of killing, many of the veterans arrived home completely shell-shocked. Many of those who didn’t came home and ended up like Travis, feeling along, afraid, and lost in the a world that had seemed to pass them by. The first film that dealt with this theme more directly was Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, but that film was not released until 1978, while Taxi Driver was released in 1976. The war had officially ended in 1973, and the question that a film like Taxi Driver would have raised would have been “Is it too soon to talk about this?” Scorsese’s answer was a resounding no. Perhaps 1976 would have been too soon to release a war film as raw and violent as The Deer Hunter or Platoon, but the strength of Taxi Driver is that it was able to directly address the issues and fears relating to the aftermath of Vietnam without ever showing the war or even mentioning it directly. And yet, the effects of war are everywhere; not only in the minds of Travis and his fellow veterans, but in the streets of New York City, where horror and disgust over the war has brought about a new generation full of cynicism and amorality. As a nation, we may have felt unprepared to deal with these issues, but that doesn’t mean that they should have been swept under the rug. What great filmmakers like Scorsese have done throughout history is turn the mirror on society, forcing us to come to important revelations about ourselves even in the midst of pain and fear.

Robert DeNiro in a scene from The Deer Hunter, the first film to directly tackle the legacy of the Vietnam war.

Robert DeNiro in a scene from The Deer Hunter, the first film to directly tackle the legacy of the Vietnam war.

Another important cultural issue facing Taxi Driver upon its first release was the nature of the violence in the film itself. Indeed, the graphic shootout (even by today’s standards) at the end of the film threatened to give the film the dreaded “X” rating (now NC-17), which would have completely killed its chances at making any money. It was not until Scorsese and the film’s cinematographer Michael Chapman decided to de-saturate the color to make the blood appear less red that the film was allowed to be released with an “R” rating. Certainly, many who watched the film when it was first released (and even today) would have been horrified by this scene, and would have questioned the necessity of such graphic violence in the film. This troubling violence is further exemplified in the scene where Travis attempts to assassinate the political candidate Charles Palantine. While he fails in his attempt, viewers might question the ethics involved in the scenes leading up to the attempt, which seem almost glamorous in their depiction of Travis as he buys guns and knives, lifts weights, and concocts quick-draw contraptions for his small army of weaponry. With Taxi Driver, Scorsese once again brought up the age-old question, “what are the effects of art on society?” While the filmmakers certainly may have had artistic reasons for including graphically violent content in the film, it nonetheless serves as an important to consider one’s audience and the potential effect on that audience before partaking in any artistic endeavor.

The filmmakers of Taxi Driver learned this lesson the hard way when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981 in Washington, D.C. The attempt came about as a result of Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster, who played Iris, the twelve-year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver. He watched the film fifteen times in a continuous loop, and began to stalk Foster and purchase weapons. In the film, Travis brutally kills the pimps and mob bosses that have been taking advantage of Iris in an attempt to “save” Iris and provide her with a normal life. Hinckley hoped that assassinating the President would place him in the history books, and would impress Foster. The assassination attempt was not successful, but Hinckley seriously injured Reagan and several other staff members who were next to the President at the time. Certainly, Hinckley’s obsession with Foster came about as a result of viewing Taxi Driver multiple times, and thus, the relationship between art and life became all too real. At the trial, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, a verdict that outraged many. As a result, Congress and a number of states rewrote laws regarding the insanity defense, and some states abolished the defense altogether. In this way, Taxi Driver had a direct impact on the legal process. While this might be considered a positive effect of the film, it is all too easy to forget that, if Hinckley had been a better shot, the price paid for this effect could have been much higher.

ANALYZING THE THEOLOGY OF TAXI DRIVER 

Taxi Driver is a thematically and spiritually complex film that defies simple categorization. This makes it a rather difficult to provide a theological analysis for. The theological analysis, as provided by Robert K. Johnston in Reel Spirituality, consists of two axes: the experiential axis and the critical axis. The experiential axis involves the concept of “transcendence,” a discovery in film of something beyond ourselves, something that demands our total involvement and has practical consequences for our lives. While consuming popcorn and watching an explosion-filled summer blockbuster, it can sometimes be hard to think of film as transcendent. Nonetheless, film is a medium that has changed peoples’ lives, and viewing film through the lens of transcendence is necessary to appreciating film as not just entertainment, but an art form. The concept of transcendence is divided into two definitions: “transcendence (the human)” and “Transcendence (the Holy).” Taxi Driver, with its graphic and disturbing content, might not seem like an ideal candidate for this kind of analysis, but, as Johnston writes, “any filmic story that portrays human experience truthfully has this spiritual capacity.” Taxi Driver is no exception.

Johnston writes that movies are first experienced and then reflected upon. Taxi Driver is a film that demands, first and foremost, to be experienced. Everything from the jazzy Bernard Hermann score, to the lush cinematography, to the tight script and Robert DeNiro’s indelible performance is designed a primarily emotional response from the viewer. Upon first viewing, the film does not relinquish any particularly divine revelatory moments. But, upon repeated viewings, the film has revealed to me a distinct concept of transcendence at a human level. I realize that, like Travis, I often feel like “God’s lonely man,” particularly as a Christian. I feel like I do not belong in this fallen world that is filled with so many different kinds of evil and corruption. I too, desire a way to “wash the scum off of the streets.” On a deeper level, the film has shown me that even my actions that I consider to be based upon noble or holy intentions can sometimes be harmful or destructive to others. Travis’ goals of cleaning up the streets and saving Iris from child prostitution were based upon noble intentions. But, while he did “save” Iris in the end, he only did so by killing people. And, while the film ends with Travis being praised as a hero, all he has really done is become that which he tried to fight. Despite the fact that I may disapprove of Travis’ actions, they serve as an important reminder that ideology is not always equivalent to action.

A poster that expertly depicts the self-imposed isolation of Travis Bickle. Currently on my bedroom wall, it's my favorite poster I own.

A poster that expertly depicts the self-imposed isolation of Travis Bickle. Currently on my bedroom wall, it’s my favorite poster I own.

Transcendence (or “the Holy”) supports the idea that movies are a window through which God speaks. The trick about this holy transcendence is that God chooses a variety of means through which to speak to a variety of people. As Johnston puts it, “the experience can not be programmed.” We are not aware of when and where God will choose to speak to us, or what he will say. Throughout history, God has used artistic media, created by sinful humans, as a vessel through which we can experience divine revelation. Transcendence operates on the idea that grace is everywhere. As Johnston puts it, “God discloses himself through experiences, objects and people in our life.” Admittedly, I did not feel this type of transcendence upon first viewing Taxi Driver. And, even after watching it multiple times, I still did not experience a so-called “God moment,” nor did I expect to. I thought I had experienced everything that the film had to offer. However, a recent viewing of the film spoke to me in new ways, ways that only made sense in the context of holy Transcendence. In Travis, I began to see more than just a crusading, perhaps insane war veteran. I began to see his general disdain for humanity in the context of my own life, where I often self-righteously look down upon others for being sinful without acknowledging my own need for forgiveness. There is a scene where Travis, driving by a broken fire hydrant that is spewing water all over the road, rolls up his window to avoid the water. Like Travis, I often roll up my window, thinking that I am in the right and that it is only everyone except me who needs this redemptive rain. Through Travis, God has shown me my own hypocrisy and my need to prostrate myself at his feet, realizing all the while that I am a sinner who is just as much in need of a savior as everyone else on this planet. I wasn’t looking to find this “God moment,” least of all in a film like Taxi Driver, but it came to me nonetheless.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS 

The horizontal axis of Johnston’s theological analysis is the “critical axis.” This axis relies upon a theological reflection of a film, rather than the experience of the film itself. According to Johnston, a critical response should first be measured by the film itself. After the initial experience, the film can then be reflected upon in a meaningful way. This reflection is of two general types: “staying within the movie itself” and “learning from a theological partner.” Staying within a movie itself seeks to find a standard for theological judgment within the movie itself, and does not appeal to outside ground for critique. Scorsese is the kind of director who wants his films to speak for themselves, so staying within the movie itself is a good critical route to take when analyzing Taxi Driver.

Staying within the film allows a critic to analyze the themes as they appear in the context of the film alone. Some of the themes that I analyzed in my “auteur” critique would work well in the context of staying within the film. Revisiting the “God’s lonely man” theme, a critic can see how this theme is conveyed throughout the film. Scorsese uses the camera to great effect to convey this theme. In a scene where Travis is facing his final rejection from Betsy over the phone, the camera slowly trucks to the right and focuses on a long, empty hallway. The camera stays on this hallway for an excruciatingly long time as we hear Travis being rejected. Through the movement of the camera, Scorsese conveys Travis’ odd-man-out status, and his emptiness and loneliness over his rejection. As an audience, we often feel like Travis, empty and hollow, trudging through a world that seems to refuse to reveal our purpose for existing. Another example of Scorsese using the camerawork to reveal the spiritual implications of Travis’ psychological state occurs in a famous shot towards the end of the film. Travis has just killed several pimps, but he himself has been shot and gravely injured. As the police walk in to examine the scene, Travis is sitting on a couch. He puts his finger to his head as if it were a gun, suggesting that the police put him out of his misery. The camera slowly begins to dolly backward and zoom out, moving out of the room and surveying the carnage and destruction that Travis has caused. The camera continues to move out of the building to reveal a large crowd gathering to see what the commotion is. The camera continues to rise and zoom out, until it is high in the sky. Like Travis, the camera is becoming increasingly detached from the world as it moves closer to the afterlife. Travis looks like he is going to die the way he lived; detached from the world, without a reason for existing. Of course, he doesn’t end up dying, and is even hailed as a hero. The audience wonders, however, whether Travis’ heroic status will only isolate him further from society, especially given that he now has to live with his “noble” actions—actions which amounted to little more than mass murder.  These reflections, even though they are based upon style, do not reveal themselves upon first viewing, but instead must be analyzed after the initial viewing experience, in conjunction with thematic and theological reflections.

CONCLUSION 

Like all great art, Taxi Driver does not provide its audience with any easy answers. Through film, Scorsese attempts to convey the fact that the world is a messy, sinful place, and it is often difficult to find God in the midst of our own depravity. A critic can examine how he conveys this messiness through his use of theme. In particular, through a discussion of “God’s lonely man,” the nature of our destiny, and the influence of society on our individuality, he conveys that our desire to do good is often oppressed by the evil in the world around us, that we are often on our own in a world of darkness and that the fires of hell are awaiting those who cannot find the light. This messiness can also be seen by examining the real-life social and cultural implications of the film. In particular, the film’s influence on John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only is the world a messy place, but art, for better or worse, can sometimes influence the larger culture around us. In the midst of all of this, however, God can still use the power of art, created by sinful people, to influence peoples’ lives for the better. On a human level, Taxi Driver provides a kind of transcendence that allows us to re-examine not only our motivations for our actions, but also our actions themselves, and how they can influence others for either good or ill. On a holy level, I have personally experienced the power of Transcendence through Taxi Driver. The film has allowed me to re-examine my Christian mindset and realize that my faith walk is often filled with judgment and hypocrisy. From a critical theological perspective, Taxi Driver is perhaps best examined by “staying within the film.” Scorsese uses the visual design of the film to convey Travis’ status as “God’s lonely man,” as well as to convey that perhaps there is someone out there who is keeping a close eye on all that we do. In the end, sin has caused a big mess, and it’s going to take a big God to clean it up. In the meantime, we need to be patient and hope that, someday, God will deliver the world from injustice and save us all from ourselves. It only took a depraved, vigilante New York City taxi driver to help remind me of this.

In case you were wondering, yes, Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score is the best ever. Here’s the evidence:

Hillsong: Let Hope Rise and the intimacy of the “theatrical worship experience”

On the surface, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise appears to be your average behind-the-scenes music/concert documentary. And, in many ways, it is. We get the story behind the Australian worship band’s unexpected rise to global fame, the members’ relationships to one another and their families and intimate peeks into recording sessions and live shows.  We see the struggles of touring, the cost of artistic genius and the stresses of living life in the limelight.

But this documentary is much more than your average concert doc. It’s billed as something beyond that: a “theatrical worship experience.” The goal of the film is not just to inform and entertain, but to draw people into worship and intimacy with the God of the universe, without having to leave their theater seats. An ambitious goal, to be sure, not to mention a novel one. It’s a testament to the power and intimacy of Let Hope Rise, then, that it accomplishes everything it sets out to do, and more.

Impeccably directed by Michael John Warren (who made the Jay-Z documentary Fade to Black), the selling point of the film is the extended musical sequences, many of them shot at a concert at the Los Angeles Forum (though a concert in Manila gets some focus as well). Here we see the aching intimacy and raw power of the performers in their natural setting. But these folks aren’t in it for the applause or the fame: as all the band members make clear, they exist to make the name of Jesus famous. This is the glue that holds the group together, and we witness that throughout the film. In all their interactions with each other, with their families and with their fans, the members of Hillsong United are a mighty testament to how God’s love looks like lived out in the day-to-day. Not that they’re perfect: they doubt, they disagree, they regret things they’ve said and things they’ve left unsaid. But it’s truly inspiring to see the band, which started as a worship band at Hillsong church in Sydney, selling out arenas around the world and yet remaining so incredibly, almost supernaturally humble.

Better than most music documentaries (and certainly most Christian films), Let Hope Rise conveys the beautiful idea of calling, that we all have something in this life that God is calling us to do. Joel Houston never planned on touring with a hit band around the world; it kind of just happened. He simply saw a need and walked into it with humility. Many band members say they can’t exactly explain this idea of calling, because, in some ways, following God’s will for our lives goes beyond rationalization. When you’re answering God’s call and living out his will for your life, you just know.

Exploring this intimacy with the band members off the stage only adds to the power of their worship experiences on the stage. We’ve seen the struggles they’ve had in coming up with the perfect lyrics (which are designed to be sung, not just listened to, Houston says) and the perfect melodies to allow people to draw near to God at one of their shows. We know how achingly hard they’ve worked to bring this kind of intimate experience about.

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Let Hope Rise is billed as a “theatrical worship experience,” and is entirely successful in its ambitious goals.

Now, filming a concert doesn’t mean that an audience watching it on a screen is going to feel the impact of the show in the way that those attending it live might. But, in this case, I think every emotion resonates. This “theatrical worship experience” is something truly special; I felt an immediate connection to these songs I’ve sung in church and heard on the top of the charts for years. I felt the palpable presence of God in that dark theater, and that’s something very rare, particularly in the world of Christian films, which often settle for trite religious platitudes and sentimental spiritual pandering—rarely uplifting, and hardly ever inspiring. There’s not a hint of falsehood with Hillsong: when it comes to Christianity, these folks are the real deal, and a great example of what living a life sold out for Jesus can really look like. This authenticity, rather than the quality of the musicianship or the production values (though those are both stellar) is what makes the concert sequences so exhilarating (Taya Smith’s performance of “Oceans” is, naturally, a highlight, though seeing people around the world sing “Mighty to Save” in different languages was my favorite moment in the film). As one band members says, “Without Jesus, the band would be nowhere, because I honestly don’t think we’re that good.” This kind of authentic worship may have the power to sway those who have grown deeply cynical toward the church or worship music in general (Seth Hurd wrote for Relevant on how the film affected his attitude toward worship).

I chuckle, then groan (or maybe it’s both at once, a chuckle-groan, if you will) when I hear critics of bands like Hillsong United dismissing them because of the fact that (gasp!) they’re successful and make money and sell lots of records. It’s as if they’re expected to donate every cent of their success to charity and live in complete poverty (ironically, there’s no pressure for successful secular artists to do this, for reasons that probably warrant a separate blog post). But there should, I believe, be a healthy skepticism of fame and fortune when it comes under the banner of Christianity. Thankfully, the members of Hillsong avoid that trap by focusing entirely on their message and giving the praise and the glory back to Jesus: the band members discuss the tension of calling attention to themselves so they can direct it back to God, and I think that can be a potentially healthy (or potentially dangerous) space in which to wrestle. But Hillsong emerges from that battle triumphant. In all the ways that matter, they’re still that tiny little worship band from a tiny little church in Sydney. There may be more people listening and watching than ever before, but the invitation remains the same. “Come to the foot of the cross and worship with us, and you will leave changed.”

I, for one, didn’t want Let Hope Rise to end. As it turns out, the presence of God is a pretty awe-inspiring place to be.

Phoenix Film Festival Recap: The indie spirit is alive and well

One of my favorite things about film festivals is that you never quite know what you’re going to get. The modern cinematic experience has largely been soured by early reviews and spoiler-filled trailers, but attending the Phoenix Film Festival is like stepping back into a time when all it took to sell you on a movie was a title and a two-sentence summary. While larger festivals like Sundance have in some ways become too commercialized, such wonder (and sometimes horror) in the face of mystery is still very much present here.

I didn’t expect to be so sobered (and educated) by Since: The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, a hair-raising documentary about a tragic plane bombing that haunted a generation. I didn’t expect to be so moved by The Man Who Knew Infinity, an impeccably acted biopic about Indian math whiz Srinivasa Ramanujan. I didn’t expect to have my mind so thoroughly twisted in knots by the sci-fi time travel wonder Displacement, or laugh so hard at The Meddler, a film that on paper seemed to be a more serious drama.

The tagline for the Phoenix Film Festival is “find your new favorite movie,” and, while that may be a bit dramatic, I appreciate and understand the spirit of such a phrase. You really can find anything at a place like this, even your new most hated movie. Both sides of the coin seemed to be present during screenings of Night of Something Strange, a schlocky horror film so disgusting it had even the staunchest gore hounds running for the exits (and the true-blue sickos singing its praises).

I, along with many others, certainly found some of my new favorite short films here. The best piece of advice I could give to a first-time festival-goer is see some short films. Sci-fi shorts, horror shorts, animated, live-action and documentary are all on display, and they’re some of the most creative (and sometimes downright bizarre) stuff you’ll ever see. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a theater audience laugh as hard as we did during the Spanish-language short “A King’s Betrayal,” which is narrated by a piñata horse as he makes his journey from store selection to ultimate grim purpose. It’s a similar concept to the upcoming Seth Roger-led animated film Sausage Party, which will have a hard time matching this.

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The Phoenix Film Festival is a great example of what makes festivals so much fun and so special.

The shorts programs also best illustrate my other favorite aspect of film festivals: the community. One of the highlights of the festival was getting to chat with director Peter Brambl about his awesome short film “The Mountain King.” It’s an impeccably crafted and loving homage to 70’s crime thrillers, telling an epic and generation-spanning story of loss and redemption in the span of 10 minutes. We discussed our shared love for this style of cinema and I told him how I’d love to see the short made into a feature, since there’s clearly enough material to do so. He agreed, and said it was likely going to happen.

I love getting in line for a movie and asking others, “what have you seen?” I sat next to a woman in a screening who had written her reactions to the films she had seen in her programs. She was a sci-fi fan and spent several minutes talking about what had stuck with her during the festival. I worked as a volunteer in theater operations, which gave me a lot of downtime in-between screenings. Talking to other volunteers about movies for hours was a rare opportunity for me to discuss one of my favorite subjects at length without getting disapproving glances or feeling like I’ve overstayed my welcome. I met friends who were always eager to discuss further.

That’s ultimately what makes festivals like the Phoenix Film Festival so rare, and so special. That shared passion, the ability to watch 4, 5, 6 movies in a row and still be excited about it, is infectious. That breathless anticipation during the opening credits, and either the slow build of satisfaction or the mounting dread of disappointment are something the audience shares together. We all go on the same journey, though we experience it in different ways.

I suppose the same can be said for life. In this microcosm of existence known as a film festival, the question is often the same: “what have you seen?” But in the answer lies the endless possibility of lifetimes.

What Han Solo taught me about Easter

 

One of my favorite scenes in the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is the one where new characters Finn and Daisy first come across the infamous space rogue Han Solo and his longtime Wookie companion Chewbacca. When asked about the ancient myth of the Jedi and the force that surrounds the universe, Han replies, “It’s true. All of it.”

What gives this line so much meaning is that this wasn’t always Han’s conclusion. In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, Han is outright dismissive of the Force, telling Luke Skywalker, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.”

We, of course, know Han Solo is wrong, but the pleasure of his journey, so expertly capitalized upon in The Force Awakens, is seeing him accept this realization for himself. There are things he doesn’t understand about the universe, things he can’t even see. And Han, ever the pragmatist, denies they exist because he hasn’t seen the evidence for himself.

But his admission 30 years later changes all of that. He is now telling fellow doubters that the things he once refused to believe in are true. All of them.

I’ve thought quite a bit about Han’s realization during Holy Week. I think we often treat the resurrection of Christ in the same way Han initially treated the force. A man rising from the dead? How can such a thing be true?

imagesWe live in a pragmatic, logical society, and this is in many ways a good thing. We are naturally skeptical until we have reason to believe otherwise. We value science and evidence-based convictions, much as Han did when he told Luke, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

But our faith in science only takes us so far, before it becomes just that, faith. We can become so obsessed with what we can observe, what we in fact can witness with our own eyes, that any other way of experiencing the world is dismissed out of hand. We somehow think that science will solve all of our problems, that it will save us from ourselves, despite the fact that the study of science is done by human hands. We need only to look at the atom bomb and two world wars to convince us that our salvation is not found in science alone.

Two famous skeptics, C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel, were a lot like young Han. They were so obsessed with evidence that they set out to disprove Christianity and the existence of God entirely. They didn’t do a very good job. Both became staunch Christian apologists, and they did so primarily by examining the evidence they were so hoping would lead to a different conclusion. If all things are created by God, then science, like everything else, points back to the majesty of the creator.

As Strobel has written, “Christianity is a very historical religion. It makes specific claims that are open to testing.” He also said, “I think it’s very healthy to use journalistic and legal techniques to investigate the evidence for and against Christianity and other faith systems.”

Doing so is not only healthy, but essential. One of the things I love about the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ is that they strike me as very journalistic. Four men, approaching the same story from four different angles, astonishingly came to the same conclusions. Luke, a doctor by profession, was particularly interested in providing an orderly and accurate account of what transpired during Jesus’ three years of ministry, along with his eventual death and resurrection.

Luke tells Theophilus, to whom his gospel account is addressed, that he intended “to write an orderly account…that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).

The story of Easter is not some far-away fairy tale, but a story rooted in many of the things our society holds dear. Archaeology, science, history…it all points to the risen Christ.

“Points” is the operative word here. None of these things, on their own or combined, irrefutably prove that Christ was raised from the dead three days after he was crucified and buried. There is, of course, a strong element of faith to, well…faith. Christianity is both intellectual and experiential. Han Solo could have seen evidence of the force and still not believed, because doing so would require a change of perspective in his life. It would require him to reorder his priorities, to abandon some of the things that had previously brought him joy. His life would never be the same.

We can assert the veracity of the story of Christ’s resurrection all day, but if we don’t allow it to penetrate our hearts, to reorder our lives in response, that we haven’t really been listening. Some people may never feel like they will be able to take that step of faith to surrender their lives in this way. But the Easter story reminds us that it is, indeed, just a step. Tomorrow there will be another. And the day after, another. Before we know it, Christ has changed us from the inside out.

As Easter approaches, I think of Han Solo’s confession, informed by both rational study and the realization that there are some things about the universe that will never fit neatly into his compartmentalized mind. “It’s true…all of it.” As I look upon the resurrected Christ, I repeat these words with awe, wonder and the realization that it changes everything.

That Dragon, Cancer and the art of surrender

I can’t get baby Joel to stop crying. He doesn’t want his juice box. He doesn’t want me to hold him. As his wails grow louder and more pained, I seem to be out of options. I resign to telling my son that I can’t make him feel better, words no father ever wants to say.

It seems odd for a video game to give you a goal you can’t achieve, but that’s just one of the things that makes That Dragon, Cancer special. The game is a haunting, painful and yet beautiful interactive poem, created by Ryan and Amy Green, along with developer Josh Larson, to tell the story of their young child’s real-life battle with—and eventual loss to—cancer at the age of five.

“Interactive poem” is a better term for the title than video game. There aren’t any traditional goals, and the ones given to you seem awfully mundane. Feed the ducks at the pond. Examine pictures in a hallway. Push baby Joel on a swing. The game seems more concerned with guiding you through the events being depicted rather than letting you having any say in how these events play out. Which is, of course, the point.

That Dragon, Cancer is a devastating interactive story of a family's real-life encounter with cancer.

That Dragon, Cancer is a devastating interactive story of a family’s real-life encounter with cancer.

Gaming is often goal-oriented, asking us to solve problems and achieve things to make ourselves feel accomplished. We usually expect a reward in return. That Dragon, Cancer is part of a recent trend of “empathy games” that take a different route. More often autobiographical in nature, the goal of empathy games is to put the gamer in someone else’s shoes; perhaps a real person facing real emotions, or at least a reasonable facsimile of one. No bullet sponges or high speed chases here. In the ongoing conversation of games as art, the idea that games can allow us to connect with others in the way a great novel or film can has been a difficult hurdle for the medium to overcome. And yet, I never thought I would emphasize with the identity struggles of a lesbian teenager until I played Gone Home. And The Stanley Parable messed with my conceptions of free will and storytelling as much as One Hundred Years of Solitude.

That Dragon, Cancer is simpler than those games, and yet infinitely richer in its emotional impact. By giving us an impossible task (save Joel from dying) and asking us to control it, the Greens reveal to us the futility of human endeavor, especially when it comes to trying to make sense of unexpected tragedy. One of the game’s more creative examples of this is when the player is tasked with guiding a flying Joel through a minefield of cancer cells. Joel is held up by balloons, and once those balloons pop, he will fall. As the cancer cells continue to multiply and navigating the field becomes harder, I realize that I’m not supposed to win. Eventually, I have to surrender to the makers of the game and fail at this particular task in order to proceed.

Surrender is a big theme in the game, specifically, to God. Not that doing so was easy for the Greens. Throughout the game, the player reads letters the husband and wife wrote to one another. Amy always appears cheerful, resting in the hope that God will hear her prayers and heal Joel.

“I pray I find God’s wisdom in the midst of chaos,” she says. “My doubt is insignificant compared to God’s faithfulness.”

Ryan tries to remain hopeful, but is often jealous of Amy’s cheery outlook on their son’s increasingly grim situation.

“My wife is expecting a surprise party from the Lord…I envy her,” he says.

Ryan and Amy’s prayers seem to have got them through this tough season, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do their part. They moved with their two other sons to California from Colorado just to try an alternative treatment for Joel. They (and by extension, the player) spent many sleepless nights in the hospital. They tried just about everything they could, but in the scene where the doctors come to announce that there isn’t anything else they can do, the game shifts. We’re no longer battling the cancer; we’re battling the voices of fear, doubt and pain that emerge in Ryan and Amy’s heads. We’re asked to resign ourselves to the fact that prayer is the only thing we have left to do.

The game’s Steam reviews are overwhelmingly positive, but most of the negative reviews complain about its blatant religious overtones. Those opinions are valid, but they miss the point. The Greens’ personal experience is not universally relatable, nor should it be. Their strong Christian faith is no less a part of their story than Joel himself. To diminish its importance in order to appeal to a wider audience would be disingenuous.

But the Greens’ Christian faith isn’t something they just conjured up to make them feel better about their baby’s death. It’s an all-encompassing hope that protrudes into every area of their life. Prayer doesn’t always have to bring tangible results to have value. Faith doesn’t always bring the healing we desire it to. God isn’t a personal genie we conjure up when we need things from him, but God is there in the midst of our pain, and he fights for us and with us.

“Grace is…kind of like help,” Amy narrates as the player fights the fire-breathing dragon of cancer as an avatar of Joel decked in armor. “We know that God fights for Joel, even when he can’t fight for himself.” It is then that grace appears as a majestic golden eagle, lifting up Joel after he is felled by a fireball.images

That faith-filled hope is driven home in the game’s ending, where I am tasked with lighting candles in church to pray for Joel’s healing. Each candle is tied to a specific prayer, and as I attempt to light all the candles at once, a symphony of prayers rise, united in their diversity. Of course, we already know those prayers weren’t answered, at least in the way we would have liked them to be, but for Christians the good news is that even this is not the end of the story. Death never has the final say, and neither does cancer. Without giving anything more away, I even get to see Joel one more time before the credits roll.

Yes, That Dragon, Cancer is an unapologetically Christian examination of death and tragedy. It’s also probably the first Christian video game that can be considered great art. From its beautiful soundtrack to its creative use of shifting perspective and haunting stylized visuals, the game is an artistic masterwork. It’s the closest we’ll get to an interactive The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Perhaps, most importantly, it’s a potent reminder that the world needs good Christian art. Stories like the ones the Greens have shared are valuable stories that need to be told—stories of God’s grace and provision through life’s up and (especially) downs. We don’t want to play or watch a religious tract or a Sunday school sermon. Just give us a story, and tell it well. And while you’re at it, give us a few tissues.

That Dragon, Cancer is on sale on Steam through March 21. You can purchase it here. 

Oscars: Why Mad Max: Fury Road should win Best Picture (and why it won’t)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is facing a bit of an identity crisis these days. Many people see the membership organization that votes upon who takes home Oscar trophies as out-of-touch and lacking in diversity, as evidenced by the recent #oscarssowhite campaign that was all over social media. This led to a recent decision by Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to announce that the Academy would be dramatically overhauling its membership to include more (younger) persons of color.

But the Academy’s lack of diversity extends far beyond race. It also shows itself in the movies that often take home the top prize. The term “Oscar bait” has been used for years to describe the bland, safe, “important” movies (often biopics) that the Academy seems to go nuts over, usually to the detriment of a more worthy Best Picture nominee. Recent examples include the inexplicable victory of Crash over Brokeback Mountain, or The King’s Speech instead of The Social Network.

Then there’s the issue that the winner each year is often a movie few people have seen. The Academy attempted to address this popularity issue in 2009 when it allowed up to 10 movies to be considered in the running for the top prize (up from the previous cutoff at 5). The goal, people seemed to think, was for excellent, overlooked genre fair like The Dark Knight to at least be considered for the major award. Then, people could tune in to see their favorite popular movie lose, but at least with the knowledge that it wasn’t relegated entirely to the technical categories.

This hope proved short-lived. The obvious recent example of why this system has already broken down is The Avengers. Marvel’s smash comic-based hit could have easily snagged the 10th spot for consideration in the 2012 ceremony. And yet, nine films ended up nominated. Why bother with 10 spots if you’re not going to fill them with the very movies that they were created for?

With this troubled history comes the electrifying tale of Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller’s ferocious action masterpiece reinvigorated a franchise we didn’t even know we still wanted, and did it with incredible technical panache. The Academy took notice: Fury Road has a total of 10 nominations, blasting its way out of the technical categories to consideration for awards like Best picture, directing and editing.

Mad Max: Fury Road is richly deserving of Best Picture status, but is probably still a bit too wild for the Academy.

Mad Max: Fury Road is richly deserving of Best Picture status, but is probably still a bit too wild for the Academy.

It’s great that, like everyone else, the Academy has taken notice of the finest action film of this decade. But, while Mad Max has many reasons to take home the top prize, I’m still not convinced it will. Here are three reasons why it should, followed by three reasons why it won’t.

  1. It’s a prestige picture

Fury Road is known first and foremost as a balls-to-the-wall action epic, and it fits that bill nicely. But it’s also the rare action film that was a smash hit with both audiences and critics. It has won numerous best-of-year awards from critics groups, and the consensus is pretty overwhelming. This catapults the film far beyond ever your typically excellent action fare. For both its pedigree and popularity, the Academy would be wise to award it the top prize.

  1. It would be historic

The Academy seems to take its sweet time catching up with history. In 87 years, a straight-up action film has never taken home the top prize (historical epics like Braveheart, war films or genre mashups like The French Connection are the closest we’ve gotten). No science-fiction film has won. Fantasy films got their due when Return of the King won in 2003, but little has been heard from them since. Audiences tend to speak with their wallets, and money talks. Many of the highest grossing movies of all-time are action films. Now, popularity does not always equal quality (a statement that describes the career of Michael Bay perfectly), but that clearly does not apply in this case.

  1. The Academy is getting weird

Fury Road is an undeniably bizarre film. Legendary Aussie auteur George Miller brought his trademark eye for original designs and odd humor (hello, Mr. Doof) to the table, proving that you can make a movie everyone loves without actually caring about what they think. Fury Road is the ultimate middle-finger to the market-researched summer blockbuster. It was made by a passionate group of people committed to a unique vision. How often do $100 million-plus action movies follow that description? In many ways, it seems like the textbook definition of what might turn the Academy off.

But that all changed last year, when the Academy awarded Best Picture to Birdman. That insane, inspired masterwork proved that, perhaps, the Academy was ready to embrace the weird. That same year, beloved indie auteurs like Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater shared space with more traditional Oscar fare like The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. What better way to continue that embrace of diverse voices than to award a gonzo action picture?

And now, why it still won’t win:

  1. It’s an action movie

Yep. Despite the Academy’s embrace of less traditional fare in more recent years, Fury Road is still an action movie. I fear the genre has too much stigma attached to it—it’s generally seen as not “important” enough. The Academy doesn’t often like to award movies without clear “messages.” While Fury Road has a rich and meaningful subtext beneath its non-stop violence, that’s still probably too subtle for the Academy at this point. Will they ever award Best Picture to an action movie? Yes, but I fear it might still be a while.

  1. It’s not the only action movie on the playground

You might have heard of a little flick called The Revenant. Alejandro Inarritu’s grueling survival tale swept the Golden Globes and seems to have some strong momentum going into the Oscars. Admittedly, Fury Road does as well. But The Revenant has the advantage of a prestige director (Inarritu took home the directing trophy last year) and imgrescinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki, gunning for his third straight prize). It’s certainly a non-stop action movie, but it doesn’t advertise itself as such in the same way as Fury Road. It’s artsy, and it very much attempts to say something meaningful. This means the Academy will love it, and it might feel like it can fulfill their obligation to finally award an action movie by giving the gold to The Revenant instead.

  1. It’s not actually the Best Picture

I’m ready and willing to admit that Fury Road is not actually the Best Picture in the running. That would be Spotlight or Room, two films I would be overjoyed to see win. This is less of a complaint and more of a reality check. Perhaps the Academy will award a talky, witty film like The Big Short, also a genre buster for being a comedy. Or perhaps The Martian, a film that, much like Fury Road, expertly balanced the line between critical darling and commercial smash.

Rarely has the Best Picture race felt so wide-open. This is a good thing. The field of contenders is quite strong, which speaks well to the strengths of Fury Road but also probably hurts its chances. Still, I’ll be cheering on Miller and company. Cinema this bold, exhilarating and uncompromising deserves to be celebrated.

The quiet revolution of A Charlie Brown Christmas

On December 9, 1965, nearly half the population of the United States tuned in to watch the premiere of the first Peanuts special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Christmas, and in particular holiday specials, would never look the same. Rightly looked upon as a holiday classic, the animated special is even more of a marvel due to the fact that it very nearly never happened.

What is now the second-longest holiday special following the Rankin-Bass production of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, the special was originally commissioned by Coca-Cola. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, director Bill Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson mapped out the feature in a handful of hours, and were put on a tight five-month deadline to have the animated short ready in time for Christmas. Musician Vince Guaraldi had already written his famous “Linus and Lucy” piano piece, but he was also commissioned to write the rest of the music for the special. Opening song “Christmastime is Here” was recorded just four days before the premiere.

The sponsors were not impressed. “They thought having jazz music on a Christmas show didn’t make much sense,” Mendelson recalled in a recent USA Today article about the making of the special. “They didn’t like the (voice) actors being kids, and they just didn’t like the show in general. They said: ‘You made a nice try. We’ll put it on the air, obviously, but it just doesn’t work.’ ”

Viewers disagreed. The show was a ratings smash, pulling in 15 million viewers. Last year, 6 million people across the country still tuned in to participate in what has become an annual holiday tradition. There are many things that make the show a true classic: it’s laid-back pace, its typically strong cast of characters, its childlike sense of innocence as well as its themes exploring the true value of Christmas in the wake of corporate consumerism.

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A Charlie Brown Christmas is considered a classic for many reasons, but its greatest legacy is the purity, simplicity and strength with which it conveys its message.

Nowhere is this charm more evident than in the always riveting moment where, responding to Charlie Brown’s question about the true meaning of Christmas, Linus gets up on stage and starts reciting from the Gospel of Luke. Everyone was worried this scene would scare off sponsors, but not Schulz.

“He said, ‘If we’re going to do a Christmas special, we’ve really got to do it the right way and talk about what Christmas is all about,’ ” Mendelson tells USA Today. “Bill and I looked at each other, and I said, ‘There’s never been any animation that I know of from the Bible. It’s kind of risky.’ Then Schulz said, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, who will?’ ”

The rest of the crew was wise to trust Schulz. This scene is the heart of the special; without it, the message would not have the same impact. Christopher Shea, who was 7 when he voiced Linus for the special (all of the child characters were voiced by actual children), noted this when he discussed the legacy of that scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition.

“At the time, being just 7, I didn’t realize the depth and perception of what I was reading, even though our family did have deep religious values. From a very early age I remember our whole family listening to the Messiah every year as a holiday tradition. But as I grew older I came to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas as it was told on the TV show. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will always treasure.”

If reading from the Bible on national television was controversial 50 years ago, how much more so would it seem to be today? And yet, households around the country will tune in each year to hear its message, even if they celebrate the season for reasons that have nothing to do with baby Jesus in a manger.

I think that’s probably because this scene so brilliantly goes against two major social streams of the last 50 years. One is consumerism; certainly an issue in 1965, it’s even more prevalent today. With the advent of commercials and targeted advertising, we schedule our lives around the “shopping season,” with Black Fridays (and Thursdays), cyber Mondays and the mad rush to spend before the year is over. In comparison to that, Linus’ one-minute consolidation of the Christmas story is positively quaint. In that way, it is also a great relief. If this is what Christmas is about, it sounds a lot less stressful than all the other stuff I’ve been running around doing.

The speech also seems to fly in the face of the last 50 years of Christian history. The church has a lot of mud caked on its shoes for choosing to bed with politicians, rising with the “moral majority” of the 1980s and continuing today with presidential candidates like Ted Cruz proposing some sort of terrifying theocracy where Christianity functions more like big brother, regulating everything we say and do. Theologically, we find ourselves mired in legalism once again. It’s icky stuff, but Linus comes to remind us all that Christmas is a time where we can get back to the fundamentals of why Jesus came and what it looked like when he did.

It’s the clearest, most pure distillation of the Christmas message I can imagine hearing. No political agenda, no asking for money, no attempts to shame viewers or scare them into religion. “You’re sick of consumerism? Let me tell you a story. This is what Christmas is all about.” We westerners have managed to muck up the clear and concise gospel message almost beyond recognition, but Linus is not guilty of this. He’s just sharing a pretty awesome story.

And what a witness! Linus doesn’t say “this is what Christmas means to me,” or, “this is how I celebrate during this time of year.” He, and by extension Schulz, is making a stand to say “this is what Christmas is all about,” what everything else we love about this time of year stems from. It’s a bold stance, especially today, but it’s one of the reasons the scene still holds so much power. This may be the only time any part of the gospel message is heard in a household all year. And the secular and spiritual alike welcome it with open arms.

The great television critic Matt Zoller Seitz summed up what truly makes this special, well, special, even to modern audiences, in an article he wrote for the Newark Star Ledger upon the show’s 30th anniversary in 1995.

“Television today favors fast, frequent, exaggerated bursts of action and confrontation. In comparison, A Charlie Brown Christmas is almost unnervingly reflective, dependent on words, emotions and small grace notes rather than speed, glitz and noise.”

A Charlie Brown Christmas finds beauty in simplicity. Ice skating upon a lake. A sad looking tree that needs a little love. A baby boy, born in a manger, who would one day be the savior of the world. Christmas is a stressful time of year for many, and the special doesn’t shy away from that. Charlie is frustrated with the holiday too (“My dog has gone commercial! I can’t stand it!”), which is why the ultimate message is so inspiring. We change along with Charlie, slowly moving away from cynicism to appreciation for home and heart, friends and family and the God who came down as a man to bring us all together. It’s hard to hate the holidays after being exposed to it.

After an initial staff screening of the special, animator Ed Levitt saw what Coca-Cola didn’t. He stood up and declared, “A Charlie Brown Christmas will run for 100 years!”

We should all be so lucky.