No Separation of Church and Screen

New hits in politics and film all tell the same story: America is still a land of religion. The candidates, particularly Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, are displaying their beliefs. Each of three big new movies — "I Am Legend," "There Will Be Blood," and "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" — is showcasing its own kind of faith.

The action flick "I Am Legend" stars Will Smith as Robert Neville, a scientist who is the only survivor of a virus that either kills humans or turns them into ghouls. He tries to find a cure, and early in the movie it looks like science will be the hero: Although Neville drives past a poster that reads "God still loves us," he reflects on the physical or spiritual demise of six billion people and declares, "There is no God."

The filmmakers apparently tried several endings and settled on one suggesting that there is a God. That’s what a mysterious woman who shows up with her son tells Neville: "He has a plan. He sent me here for a reason." She even thinks the end of civilization has some benefits: "The world is quieter now. It’s easier to hear God."

In a penultimate scene Neville shouts at the attacking ghouls, "You are sick and I can save you! Let me save you!" It turns out that he can’t all by himself, yet he becomes Christ-like in one sense. Science makes the difference only when aided by faith. God acts in mysterious ways, but he exists.

"There Will Be Blood," which has a national rollout next week, displays the cinematic talent of director Paul Thomas Anderson and the acting ability of Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays an evil businessman. Sadly, the film is weighed down by the 3E clichéd assumption that Entrepreneurs and Evangelists are all Evil.

The plot has a determined oil man a century ago getting rich by lying to farmers, and an evangelist gaining power through other malignant means. They’re both hypocrites, mirror images of corruption who increasingly show their hatred for all. New York Magazine cynically but accurately described the "Oscar strategy" of the movie: "Be relevant. It’s about the intersection of single-minded capitalism and fundamentalism — sound familiar?"
Yes, familiar — but many movie critics know so little of reality that they see the stock characters of fiction and media as historically typical. The New Yorker, for example, termed the film "an allegory of [American] development in which two overwhelming forces — entrepreneurial capitalism and evangelism — " both operate on the border of fraudulence."

The allegory suggests that both pastors and businessmen operate as if there is no God. The film’s conclusion, though, suggests that time wounds all heels: Both the cynical preacher and the lying businessman deserve to end up either dead or imprisoned, and cosmic justice does prevail in the end.

"National Treasure: Book of Secrets" is both campy and campground. Its American history is hokum. The plot depends on an easy break-in at the Oval Office, an easy kidnapping of the president from a dinner party, a City of Gold under Mount Rushmore, a book stashed in the Library of Congress that contains the truth about the Kennedy assassination and Area 51 of UFO fame, etc. — but no one takes any of this seriously.

What’s cool is the campground part: the movie is a throwback to family-friendly action movies with a "civil religion" tinge. Nicholas Cage as Benjamin Franklin Gates gives patriotic talks and risks death to prove that an ancestor was not a John Wilkes Booth co-conspirator. Binding up the nation’s wounds also leads to a binding up of familial wounds: Gates’ estranged parents reunite, he and his estranged girlfriend reunite, and even the southern partisan bad guy turns out to have a noble streak.

Bottom line on this movie lineup: Faith in faith, faith in cosmic retribution, and faith in America, all competing for box office votes.


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