I’ve spent some time pondering how to write a fair review of Machine Gun Preacher—this week’s Blu-ray release—and I’ve come to the conclusion that it probably can’t be done. Director Marc Forster has crafted a technically fine biopic on the controversial Sam Childers, the former drug dealing biker who converted to Christianity and initiated his own personal crusade against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, but what viewers take away from the film will depend entirely on their own political leanings.
Machine Gun Preacher seems likely to incite as much controversy as the man it’s based on. The filmmakers here clearly stand with Childers, so those who view Childers as a humanitarian will likely enjoy Machine Gun Preacher, and those who view him as an arms-dealing war profiteer will likely despise the film.
The film opens with Childers (played by Gerard Butler) being paroled from prison and promptly launching into a two man crime spree with his best friend (played by the always fantastic Michael Shannon). The screenplay lays the early villainy on thick: In the span of 24 hours, Childers commands his ex-stripper wife to resume stripping, he spins off on a drug and alcohol bender, he robs a drug dealer of his cash and heroin, and he stabs a hobo drifter twenty times. Just to incense the politically correct, who may or may not have a problem with drug use and thievery, he even uses the N-word multiple times! That’s some night.
Through his wife, however, he soon finds Jesus and abandons his criminal life. Childers stops abusing drugs and alcohol, he starts his own construction company, and he finds out that he’s actually okay with black people. He even stops cursing. He attends a church mission trip to Uganda where he sees firsthand the devastation Kony’s LRA has wreaked on the land. Childers founds a church in the middle of the war-torn region and uses it refuge for orphans and a base of operations for his war against the LRA. He soon finds that the locals have christened him “The Machine Gun Preacher,” a savior for the downtrodden and orphaned children of the region.
No one in the movie offers a real challenge to the efficacy of Childers’ mission. Well, one snooty, bleeding-heart liberal doctor with a refined English accent condemns him, but she later gets smacked around by Kony’s thugs at a checkpoint and has to be rescued by none other than Sam Childers decked out like Rambo. Machine Gun Preacher leaves little doubt that this is how Childers himself wishes to be perceived.
Marc Forster plays it pretty safe for the most part, but two-thirds of the way into the film something interesting happens: Childers becomes disenfranchised with those around him as soon as begins to run into serious financial trouble. His methods become more violent and his message harsher. His sermons begin to take on the contours of the message preached by the Catholic Church during the Crusades. God doesn’t need your good intentions, he declares to his congregation, He needs action; He essentially needs warrior monks who will carry his fight into war torn lands. Before Childers can go full-bore fanatic, however, his friends and family pull him back down to Earth, and the story returns to safe territory.
From a purely technical standpoint, the film itself is fine. Machine Gun Preacher boasts great production values and a fine cast. Marc Forster films the proceedings with a steady hand a focused eye—he clearly learned his lesson from the debacle that was Quantum of Solace. But the story itself feels simplistic and dishonest.
I’m sure that this review sounds like I’m being dismissive of the real Childers, and I’m not. I’m fully prepared to admit that he may be doing great things in Africa. He would probably counter my skepticism with the argument that he’s done more to protect the children of Uganda than I ever have from the comfort and safety of my home, and he wouldn’t be wrong. But Childers is a complicated man, and such a complicated subject deserves a more complex film. Machine Gun Preacher doesn’t fit that bill.
I suspect that one day a great movie will be made about Childers, but it probably won’t happen in his lifetime. Childers’ legacy in Africa is just beginning to take form today, and it will take a director with a critical eye and the benefit of hindsight to make that film.