For my book Gray Matters I asked Jack Hafer to categorize different approaches Christians have taken to film & filmmaking, and he described three. Below I’ve summarized his three approaches, plus a fourth that I have personally observed.
So I saw Fireproof over the weekend (as did, apparently, quite a few people: the $500,000-budgeted film earned $6 million in its opening weekend and landed at #4). I previously had no intentions of seeing the film, until my colleague Peter Chattaway gave it a surprisingly positive (3/4 star) review for Christianity Today. Having seen the trailer earlier this summer and lamenting the maudlin quality of Christian film, I had very little hope that Fireproof would be good, and suspected that it wouldn’t even be particularly watchable.
Turns out Fireproof was watchable (certainly moreso than its predecessor, Facing the Giants, which I couldn’t watch with a straight face), though by no means was it good.
I didn’t laugh as much during Fireproof as I did during Facing the Giants, and I only felt the urge to look away from the screen a few times. There were oodles of uncomfortably saccharine moments and heavy-handed digressions of overacting, but it was a huge, huge improvement over Giants. This makes me happy, but it neither excuses Fireproof for its numerous failures nor justifies it as a successful film.
Fireproof takes a promising, nicely compact premise—a relationship falling apart and the fight by one man (Kirk Cameron) to keep it alive—and removes most subtlety and nuance from it. What is left is a melodramatic, Hallmark Hall of Fame film riddled with clichés and one too many Kodak moments. The filmmaking is clunky and features some truly ghastly montages and sequences of editing (a “he said/she said” comedic bit is particularly bad), replete with Third Day songs and heavily-accented Southern supporting actors.
The heavy-handedness of it all is truly unfortunate. The whole “fireman” metaphor is clever but ultimately overplayed. “Marriages are not fireproof,” says Cameron at one point. “Sometimes you get burned.” Do people really talk like this in normal life? Do we really string together movie-tagline clichés when speaking of our personal struggles?
I also didn’t get why there were so many sequences of firemen rescuing people: girl stuck in a car on a train track (with train approaching), girl caught in a burning house (rescued by Kirk “why do I get respect from everyone but my wife” Cameron), etc. These moments had nothing to do with the rest of the story. The same could be said for some other sequences such as an unfunny comedic soliloquy for one of the requisite funny-guy supporting players.
This is not to say there is nothing good to be found in Fireproof. There are definitely some tender moments (especially featuring the elder “mom and dad” characters) and an overall feel-good vibe. Kirk Cameron and the female lead (Erin Bethea) have occasional moments of humane acting, to be sure.
Ultimately, though, Fireproof left a bad taste in my mouth, and it goes beyond the clunky filmmaking. Several ideas—both explicit and implicit—in Fireproof felt a bit wrong-headed to me. The film seems to argue that marriages can only really survive when God is at the center (Kirk Cameron only can start loving his wife again after he converts to Christianity). Certainly I agree that a Christ-centered marriage is a good idea; but isn’t it a bit problematic to assume that just because one converts to Christianity, marriage somehow gets easier? And what about all the millions of successful, long-lasting marriages that have existed throughout time outside of a “Christ-focus?” And what about the statistics about Christians having just as many or more divorces than anyone else? Don’t get me wrong: I think it does a marriage great good to have Christ at the center. And for a movie that is being made by a church (Sherwood Baptist), I can’t really fault them from honing in on this. But, to be honest, the least truthful part of this movie was the “Christianity saved my marriage” part…
There are other problems I had with the film: it felt pretty sexist, occasionally racist (why are the black people in the film the only real authorities on divorce?), and a bit too afraid of going to dark places (the words “divorce” and “porn,” which are crucial to the plot, are rarely spoken of directly). For a film about a failing marriage, the PG glow is not really the best fit.
Alas, this is a film made by a church. A church! The cast and crew (minus Kirk Cameron) are members of the church, and if they want to make a film, they have every right to make it however they please. Congratulations to them for creating a film from the ground up—a film that is now the #4 film in the nation. Not an easy feat.
As a critic, though, I can’t give them a ringing endorsement because of these extra-filmic circumstances. The best I could say is that Fireproof is probably the “best film to ever be made by a church.” It’s not a good film, but it is a small step forward for Sherwood Films and a tiny step forward for Christian filmmaking in general. A tiny step.
As someone who has lived, worked, and/or studied in the film industry for the last three years, it pains me to say it, but say it I must: the "Christian film" is no better today than it ever was. Of course, I would be the first to suggest that there shouldn't even be a Christian film industry, that "Christian" makes no sense as a generic modifier. But there IS a Christian film industry, and will be as long as there is a Christian subcultural marketplace; thus, the least we can do is make good films, right? Wrong. We make films like this.
Does anyone want to see that movie? The problem is not the concept; I would welcome a film that uplifts marriage and argues against divorce as the easy way out. The problem, of course, is the execution. This film--as evident from the trailer--features antiquated filmmaking techniques, cheap-looking sets and costumes, horrible acting, and a cheesy Christian music soundtrack. There is nothing aesthetically interesting going on in the trailer. It's painstakingly ordinary and grievously cliched. God help us if this is the best we can do.
We need to put a moratorium on making films like this until we can prioritize craft. We have to appreciate aesthetics as valid apart from didactic storytelling (aka preaching). Good can be done (dare I say: converts won) by an achingly beautiful cinematic image just as effectively as by the most clear-cut conversion scene. We must recognize the value of style as itself a crucial form of content.
But mostly we just need to strive for excellence and stop churning out bilge.