The early years of Billy Graham's life and ministry, if this biopic is to be believed, was loosely inspired by a Katherine Hepburn-Cary Grant screwball comedy. Not that the script says as much; but what else are we to make of the not just irreverent but almost entirely trivial tone of the film?
Competently if oddly helmed by long-time industry professional and one-time teen star Robby Benson, the film was originally released to theaters last fall amidst major fanfare in Protestant circles—and promptly disappeared, grossing a dismal $680 per screen in 282 theaters. That's pretty much the industry definition of "tanked."
Most of us know Billy Graham as the self-assured and charismatic preacher who became one of the most important figures of 20th Century Christianity. Now, with the release of Billy: The Early Years, we meet Billy as the earnest promising young man at the crossroads of faith and doubt, ultimately facing the moment of decision that launched one of history's most powerful evangelistic careers.
Most compellingly, Billy: The Early Years paints its portrait of Graham against the backdrop of his relationship with Charles Templeton, another gifted young preacher whose faith could not withstand the onslaught of scientific skepticism. He and Graham parted ways and in the film, Templeton comes to personify the rising tide of disbelief into which Graham launched his crusades.
For the DVD release, the producers have proudly announced that the film has been "entirely recut." If that's the case, I can only wonder what the faults were of the theatrical release.
It all starts, I think, with a spirited if misguided performance by Armie Hammer as Graham. The young actor is talented, and I rather imagine that his portrayal is well-backed by research, first-hand recollections by those who knew Graham in those years, and stock footage of the fledgling student/preacher. But there's something jarring about this Graham, who has more in common with Brendan Fraser than, say, Ryan Gosling. What's missing is, of course, a sense of gravitas.
Worse, I think, for a film called Billy: The Early Years is the framing narrative's emphasis on Graham's co-evangelist cum atheist propagandist Charles Templeton. In recent years, apologist Lee Strobel has rather famously co-opted Templeton's loss-of-faith story as a means of demonstrating the difference between a life of despair and a life of hope; but Templeton's story is really not the best framework, I think, for understanding Graham—unless one is targeting atheists rather than Christians. If that's the case, however, Benson's film misses the mark because it's too focused on Graham.
And if that's not the case, and the film's promotional Christian-market emphasis is credible, then the emphasis on Templeton leaves the audience adrift—particularly because the performance of Kristoffer Polaha, as Templeton, has precisely the (nonetheless theatrical) gravitas that Hammer's Graham lacks. The film’s most gripping scene gives Templeton the visual high ground as he renounces his faith and challenges the shallowness of Graham's beliefs—yet the film never gives Graham an opportunity to mount a stirring rebuttal. The blue-screen backed rally "recreation" that concludes the film, in fact, comes off as a poorly-rehearsed afterthought.
I can't imagine that the Graham family has been at all happy with this film representing, potentially, Billy's cinematic legacy.
But the film is not wholly a waste of time, and I'm rather puzzled that it didn't get at least enough positive word-of-mouth to earn it a second weekend in its theatrical release. Stefanie Butler and Lindsay Wagner are very welcome presences as the young Ruth Graham and Billy's mom, respectively, and the period production values are really pretty decent.
In the end, though, what should have been a story about finding faith comes off as a challenge to faith and a muddling-through. Not exactly the stuff of legends.
Billy: The Early Years is rated PG for thematic material including some disturbing images, brief language and smoking. This is an accurate assessment of the film's mild content.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Billy: The Early Years.
Greg Wright is Managing Editor of both Past the Popcorn and Hollywood Jesus. An ordained pastor, Greg is the author of Tolkien In Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter (2003) and Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004). A widely-known lecturer on Tolkien, Lewis, film, and fantasy, Greg resides in the Seattle area with his precious wife Jenn and their two cats, Grynne and Bearrett.