Machine Gun Preacher

This is one film that has already had an impact in the real world, if only because it has suddenly made it cool again for Facebookers to lament the actions of child killer Joseph Kony, and send around anti-Kony Slogans that you are supposed to “like” and “share.” Machine Gun Preacher is a movie laden with violence, swearing and some sensuality, so kids shouldn’t see it, but, to be fair, it’s actually rather mild compared to the way it could have been. It portrays southern Sudan and northern Uganda in a realistic light. It confronts the politically incorrect, but very real fact that African Christians, and other non-muslims, are being persecuted and killed by Muslim jihadis, and have been for a long time.  But it focuses primarily on the menace of Kony, who leads his cult under a weird mix of Islam, Christianity and witchcraft, and kidnaps children, forcing them to kill for his army or be killed by it.

But we get another story first. In Pennsylvania, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is being released from prison. Childers has spent his life on the street, learning to use, deal, and fight. He has made his living as hired muscle for drug runners, and has hurt and killed more people than the law will ever uncover. Butler was an excellent choice to portray Childers. He’s taller and slimmer than the man he plays, but otherwise looks very similar. He has the build for the action part of the roll, and his acting in this picture is tour-de-force. Incidentally, he did this film for one thirtieth of his normal rate. Childers’ wife, Lynn, (Michelle Monaghan) picks him up and drives him home. Believing that she is still working as a stripper, he asks her what time she has to work that night. She tells him that she has given that up because it “isn’t right in the eyes of God.” He derisively asks “Oh, you found God?” She replies “He found me. And He helped me change.” At first Sam is angry that she’s left a profitable job, but he soon starts to realize that his old habits are coming back with a vengeance, and that he is on a fast track to be back in prison or dead. One day, Lynn catches him in the bathroom, trying to wash blood off of himself. All he can say is “help me.”

From left: Marco, unknown, Childers, Deng.

The following Sunday, Sam goes with Lynn and their daughter Paige to church. This movie was played in theaters all over America. I rejoiced when I saw that, not only was the portrayal of a Christian church fair and respectful, but that the gospel of Jesus Christ was accurately communicated. At the end of the service, Childers answers the pastor’s call to get wet in the baptismal font. A lot of serious Christians have legitimately argued that spur-of-the-moment alter calls such as the one depicted send more people to Hell than they save from it. But history does show us that Childers, at least, was a changed man afterword, and when watching a Hollywood movie, I don’t see any point in getting greedy. So there you have it: a conversion story from Hollywood. A rushed and watered-down conversion story to be sure, but a conversion story nonetheless.

Childers and Butler at the premier.

Childers eventually travels to Uganda as a construction worker, to help a mission. He hears about Kony and the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army,” and sees a woman who’s face has been mutilated by them. Knowing that he can take care of himself, he leaves the beaten path and sees the aftermath of an LRA attack on a village. The last shot is of him howling in grief over a dead child. He returns home and eventually tells his wife God has told him to build two things: the last thing America needs (one more church building) and the first thing the Sudan needs (one more orphanage, only this one will be near Kony’s territory).

In reality, this orphanage is now the largest in Southern Sudan and has fed and housed over 1,000 children. Today, more than 200 children are being raised and educated there. Most of the staff is composed of orphans that grew up there themselves. And while this is never mentioned in the movie, Lynn works closely with Sam on the ministry, and they have a group called Angles of East Africa that they founded together.

The two “rescue vehicles” of Childer’s mission.

The strange thing is, you would usually expect a movie that is based on a true story to sensationalize and make it bigger. From what I’ve read, this movie seems to do the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of action, but the story seems blunted, almost as if the director doesn’t really want us to see Childers as a hero. A lot of things are never explained. For example, we never see how Childers came to be giving orders to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, but after a few scenes he’s leading a team of five men, including Deng (Souleymane Savane) and

The newly saved Lynn waits for her murderer husband to emerge from prison.

Marco (Mdudzi Mabaso), into life-or-death missions. We’re left to assume he simply inspired a few of them to follow him and do something about Kony. After a while, Childers starts treating his family like dirt. The movie eventually leads up to one of the most abrupt and unsatisfying non-endings I have ever seen. Perhaps worst of all, the last bit of spiritual dialogue we hear in the movie is Childers lashing  out at God for not saving some kids. I didn’t have a problem with it being there. After all, what Christian hasn’t wrestled with feelings like this? But I see no reason to finish the movie on that note, especially when the real Sam Childers doesn’t have that attitude today.

All in all, this movie brings plenty to the table: good visceral action, some hard questions to wrestle with, and a story that remained untold for far too long. Most of the problems it does have can be attributed to trying to tell an absolutely massive story, on two continents, in just over two hours. It’s far from being a perfect movie, or a perfect spiritual message. But it’s a darn good movie, and even as a spiritual message it has something to offer. This is a movie that needed to be made, and that you need to see.

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