I went to see Last Ounce of Courage because Mike Huckaby told me to. That’s actually literally true: I got one of those robo-calls yesterday, in which the recorded voice of Mike Huckaby said this film was for anyone worried about Americans losing their freedoms, suggesting I check it out. A preview for it also aired before the screening of 2016: Obama’s America I saw and reviewed a few days ago. And I had an afternoon free.
In this review, I am really going to try not to be snarky. Boy, is it hard. I call the film a Jon McNaughton painting come to life, and that’s honestly the best way I can think of to describe it. It’s that same sensibility. America is under attack. We’re losing our freedoms. We’re rejecting Jesus, and we’re rejecting the flag. We need to fight back, or something. It begins and ends with clips from speeches by Ronald Reagan from the early sixties, those hyper-patriotic things Reagan went around giving to pay the bills, back before he became governor of California.
Basically, it’s a film about Bill O’Reilly’s favorite fantasy, his “War on Christmas” (Bill O even makes a brief appearance). Bob Revere (Marshall Teague) is part-time mayor of the small mountainous town of Columbus Peak (or Mount or something–didn’t quite catch it). He’s also a pharmacist, and apparently also practices medicine. He’s the kind of guy who rides around on a Harley with an American flag fluttering behind him. He wears a biker’s jacket with patches: one reads Jesus Saves, the other, Satan Sucks. Fourteen years earlier, his only son died in combat, probably in Iraq. His grandson, Christian (Hunter Gomez) comes to live with him and his wife, Dottie (Jennifer O’Neill, remember her in Summer of ’42?). When Christian gets in trouble at school for having a Bible in his locker, Bob reprimands him, but is shamed when Christian asks what he’s doing to preserve American freedoms. So Bob decides to stand up for America by putting a Christmas tree in the city square. He is opposed by Warren Hammerschmidt (Fred Williamson), who apparently represents the ACLU, or some similar unnamed organization. Warren makes him take the tree down, so he responds by putting back up a cross they used to have on the side of the building housing the town’s homeless mission–they had to take it down when they received federal funding. Meanwhile, the town’s high school kids are doing a ‘winter play,’ a thinly veiled Nativity play about space aliens instead of baby Jesus. In the film’s climactic moment, the kids rebel and do an actual Nativity, only with the addition of an American flag, and a video of Christian’s Dad dying in Iraq. Oh, and an older, biker Jesus (he has a halo), who looks a lot like Willie Nelson, gives the whole tree/cross/Nativity his thumbs up.
My favorite moment: when the town gathers around the jail, from where Bob has just been released, and sings “Silent Night,” Warren goes up to the town’s chief of police, and demands that ‘these people’ all be arrested. Seriously, for singing “Silent Night” in public.
It’s not badly made. The acting’s all pretty good, at least if ‘good acting’ is defined as ‘able to cry on command.’ It’s not subtle, of course, with intrusive triumphant angel-chorus musical underscoring for all the big scenes. I especially liked a young actress named Jenna Boyd, who plays Christian’s Christian girlfriend, gave her some life and energy.
No, mostly the film just made me sad. I am an American, and I think a patriotic one. I am a Christian, life-long, of the Mormon variety. I like to think that I get along well enough with my conservative friends. And I have no objection to Christian conservatives making films. In fact, I sort of get it. I’m sure it gets tiresome, seeing films and TV shows in which conservative Christians are portrayed as crazy, vicious, deluded, fanatical. I like Christian films. Amazing Grace, case in point, a wonderful film about a committed Christian, William Wilberforce, and his battle against slavery. I get why this story would appeal to Christian audiences, to, among others, Mike Huckaby. And Huckaby’s an interesting guy, a guy I admire on some issues (he’s a huge supporter of arts education, for example), and disagree with on other issues.
But watching this film, I felt something akin to despair, honestly. The world-view of its makers is so far removed from any kind of reality I recognize, I wonder how dialogue is even possible. It’s a world that seems delusional.
In the world of this film, Christian kids can be suspended from school for having a Bible in their locker. In the world of this film, Christmas itself is under attack, and you can’t put up a Christmas tree in the town square. In the world of this film, a family puts up Christmas decorations, on their own house, defiantly, transgressively, as a political statement. In the world of this film, secular humanism and the liberal media (there’s also an evil news reporter), conspire together to take away American freedoms, specifically, I think, the freedom to celebrate Christmas. In the world of this film, a secular high school can produce a thinly veiled space alien Nativity, with no complaint.
And who are the villains? Well, there’s one stereotypically gay character in the film, the high school drama teacher, director of the alien Christmas. There are three black characters who have speaking lines. One is Fred Williamson, the ACLU leader. One is the sneaky town council member who conspires to get Our Hero fired as Mayor. And one is the heroic high school custodian, who apparently also constructs the sets for the high school theatre program (?!?!?!?), and who locks out the Principal and drama teacher so the kids can do their subversively pro-Christian Christmas play. The custodian is also a Vietnam veteran.
So one way to read this is: black people are heroic, as long as they know their place, working as janitors. Put them in power, though, and they’re corrupt America-Destroyers. And this film comes out now, 2012, middle of a Presidential race. With you-know-who running.
Look, I hate the ‘conservatives are subtly racist’ meme. I really do. I would resent the heck out of it if I were a conservative. And there are some black conservatives. But in the big confrontation scene between Bob and Warren, (in which Bob had all the good lines, and Warren seemed completely unable to defend his position), they kept cutting away to the faces of black audience members. See, this is a multi-racial city! And the rest of the film? Not so much.
To me, though, this film’s biggest problem is that there’s essentially no conflict. There is no war on Christmas. Thanksgiving through the end of December, Christmas is completely ubiquitous. Kids can bring their Bibles to school, towns can put up Christmas trees, town homeless missions can have a cross on the side and get federal funding (Obama increased funding for Bush’s faith-initiative), and, oh my heck, townspeople can sing “Silent Night” in public. Ever heard of Christmas caroling? To say folks can get arrested for any of it is all just a load of hooey. And one of the freedoms for which our soldiers fight, and sometimes die, is in fact the separation of Church and State. They fight for our Constitution. Which the American Civil Liberties Union is dedicated to preserving.
As a Mormon kid, growing up in Indiana, where my version of Christianity was not mainstream, I know how awful and alienating school prayer can be. I know what it feels like to be mocked and ridiculed because of my beliefs, to lose friends, especially when a government institution, like a public school, is on the side of the majority. And I prayed my way from kindergarten straight through to a Ph.D., don’t tell me you can’t pray in school. But institutional prayer that takes a majoritarian side really should be disallowed. That’s doesn’t mean you can’t sing ‘Silent Night.’ Or that President Obama can’t light a Christmas tree on the White House lawn.
I don’t even think soldiers in Iraq were fighting for American freedoms. I still don’t have any idea why we fought that war. Something about non-existent weapons of mass destruction, I suppose. But the soldiers themselves did undoubtedly believe they were fighting for American freedom. Can we honor their service and their sacrifice, while still arguing for the reasons why that specific war was unjustified?
Anyway, it’s a disheartening movie. I don’t get it. I don’t know what the fuss is about. This film is a skirmish that needn’t be fought, in a war that shouldn’t exist. What on earth is going on?