Giants

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The second film from Sherwood Pictures, Facing the Giants tells the story of a mediocre football coach and his losing high school team who have a change of heart, which naturally leads them to the state championships with a revival along the way.  Taken by itself, Facing the Giants has very little to distinguish itself from every sports movie I’ve ever seen, apart from the fact that the mandatory dramatic change in attitude has the words “Jesus” and “Honor God” instead of a different philosophy in the scene-by-scene underdog sports story.  Taken as part of Sherwood Baptist Church’s Sherwood Pictures industry, this movie represents a huge step forward in casting, production value, and acting as well as an even larger step back in terms of conflict, drama, and characterization.

Sherwood’s first production, Flywheel, had never been intended for national distribution, and it was a clear first effort in many respects.  The film quality was mediocre, the actors’ performances were amateurish in places, and the story had enough genuine heart and conflict that it carried through as a true underdog tale.

Facing the Giants is clearly meant for wider distribution.  It so happens that the mega-church that produced it already had a high school, football field, and team full of students to play high school football players (which they were).  So it’s hard to tell that the film was produced for the same or smaller budget than Flywheel.  The instrumentals are sometimes hokey, and sometimes and inspiring selection of contemporary Christian tunes that were popular at the time.  The music is sometimes blatant, but done well enough that it never crosses the line into oppressive or distracting.  Alex and Stephen Kendrick’s screenplay has moments of genuine wit and clever deliveries that deserve mention.  Despite their adolescent performers, the sports choreography never seems faked, which is a make-or-break achievement for a sports movie (and it’s a blessed relief to watch a movie about high school students who are something more than hyper-sexual hedonists, to add another good aspect to the film).  There are many moments of genuine lighthearted humor to enjoy throughout the film that are noteworthy for clever wording and solid delivery.  There are a few flashes of genuine coaching inspiration.  (The ‘death crawl’ scene makes the movie worth watching at least once all by itself.)

In terms of characters and story, Giants is sorely lacking.  Flywheel was a film about a dishonest, cheating man who becomes honest at great personal cost.  It’s a solid, Biblical theme that started with Zaccheus in the Christian gospels and has percolated through the western tradition ever since.  Giants‘ story of a mediocre coach who tries harder because of his faith is a much weaker tale.  For one thing, it isn’t much of a change.  For another, the impact he has on his community is out of all proportion with his change.  If he was only half-trying, and then tried, that’s great, but to start a revival by putting his heart into it a little bit more… I can’t buy.

The story lacks a strong antagonist.  There is a nebulous move to replace Coach Taylor that is unpleasant because it’s sneaky, but that’s the primary threat for most of the movie, and even those doubters are almost instantly won over as soon as the revival starts, leaving the last 30 minutes of the film without a real challenge.  It’s a victory story, and who doesn’t like to see their team win repeatedly, but it isn’t really much of a sports drama.

The victories come too quickly and easily, one after another, to maintain much dramatic tension after the revival begins.  Suddenly the poor coach gets a raise, his problem student repents just in time for the coach to help reconcile him with his father.  Car trouble, infertility, job insecurity, and even the sports competition only throw up obstacles to have them knocked down like dominoes.  The movie is fun and easy, because endless victory is easy.

Facing the Giants would be just fine if the movie was made to be sports entertainment.  But the film openly tries to be an inspirational example when, just before the credits, the encouragement to go face your own giants is given.  Now as a devotional instead of pure entertainment, Giants puts an additional burden on itself as a responsible treatment of God’s Word, a burden it sometimes fails drastically.

The first and most egregious error in the movie is that it presents itself as straight prosperity gospel.  God the great sovereign candy machine is just waiting to solve all of your earthly problems, (provided you have enough faith to tell him that he doesn’t have to).  The only potential miracle that isn’t delivered on film is that a boy’s crippled father isn’t instantly healed.  Every other relationship is fixed.

The gospel presented here is very culture-friendly.  There is nothing encouraged here that any atheist, Jew, or Muslim would not approve of apart from the mention of Christ himself.  God’s glory, honoring parents who haven’t ever done anything really wrong, and trying hard at work aren’t uniquely Christian values.  The things that set Christianity apart from the way of the world like sexual purity, repentance despite cost, forgiveness and reconciliation, and enduring faith in the face of losses that don’t go away within seven minutes’ film time are all completely absent.

I love the idea that coaches at a Christian school would use God’s Word in their work, but I’d rather God Word wasn’t used at all than to use it so flippantly as to tell a field goal kicker that he has to make the point because Jesus said the path was narrow to salvation, and the goal posts are narrow?!  When a cheating team is disqualified, the coach’s assertion that cheaters will lose and the righteous will be blessed is applied in the exact manner as Job’s unwise friends and the comments Jesus has to correct to his disciples.

Yes, God will absolutely bless the faithful, and punish the unrepentantly wicked, but not only does that not always happen here on Earth, but I would go so far as to say that it usually doesn’t happen here on Earth, or there could be no such thing as an ongoing mafia, or terrorist legacies across the globe.  Job cries foul on this idea when his friends sling it at him (Job 12 and 21 for starters).  Jeremiah and the Psalmists also echo this truth that is casually ignored by a devotional movie, and that’s just irresponsible.

Disney’s Pollyanna is a more responsible presentation of the applied gospel than Giants, because the problems do not all get fixed, though there is hope they might.  But Giants overtly or silently suggests that God’s blessings and victories will be instant, easy, and perpetually visible here on earth.  I would not show this film to a teenager without being ready to follow-up on the message that the prosperity gospel lacks, lest the real-life problems that wait cause the teen to lose faith because movies and devotionals like this have told them that if God really liked them, if they were faithful or trying hard enough, then life would turn out better than this.

Used with caution, maturity, and understanding of its limits, this is a good film in many ways.  I enjoyed watching it, and I will watch it again.  But Christian maturity calls us to continually imitate the Bereans and compare the message to the totality of God’s Word.  Perhaps this movie would present parents and youth directors with a great exercise in discernment and critical thinking with their young ones.

This film is worth seeing, despite its flaws.  There are good examples, encouraging moments, and some flashes of true wisdom.  It is fun, light, but does claim a mission beyond its message.

Cautiously recommended.

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