In many ways, The Saratov Approach marks the next evolution in Mormon cinema. It’s intelligently written and directed by Garrett Batty. Production design, cinematography, editing: they’re all Hollywood standard, state of the art. The music is better than that: Robert Allen Elliott’s score manages to enhance the action without intruding–I thought it was one of the great strengths of the film. Saratov features four outstanding acting performances, and several creditable supporting performances. And the story is both compelling and powerfully told.
In 1998, two LDS missionaries serving in the city of Saratov, in the Russia Samara mission, were kidnapped. Details in the movie suggest that the script holds pretty closely to the facts of the event. Elders Tuttle (Corbin Allred) and Propst (Maclain Nelson) meet a young Russian named Nikolai (Nikita Bogolyubov), who invites them to teach a discussion a few days later, and gives them an apartment number. When they go to the appointment, they’re attacked, handcuffed, blindfolded and transported to another location, a small cabin outside the city. There they meet an older man, the planner of the kidnapping, Sergei (Alex Veadov). Sergei’s in charge, and is the one who contacts the US embassy, demanding $300,000. Meanwhile, Nikolai guards the guys; feeds them, releases handcuffs one at a time so they can take care of bathroom needs. Mostly Nikolai keeps to himself, watching soccer or basketball on a small TV set in another room; very occasionally, he interacts with them, shyly talking basketball with them, for example. Sergei comes by occasionally, yells at Nikolai for small breaches of security, and terrorizes the missionaries. So most of the movie is about those four characters, with intense threats from Sergei interspersed with conversations between the two missionaries–why they went on missions, their families and home towns, sports, just passing the time–and Nikolai, a sad kid who isn’t much of a guard and seems to be in over his head, with secrets of his own. All four actors are terrific in these scenes.
We also cut to their families, back in Oregon and Arizona. Mr. and Mrs. Propst are played by Bruce Newbold and Jennifer Erekson; we spend more time with them than we do with Tuttle’s parents (IMDB lists Peggy Matheson as playing Mrs. Tuttle, but doesn’t credit the actor who plays Tuttle’s Dad). We do also see various FBI agents, but whatever negotiations may be taking place between the State Department and Russian police authorities are only referred to in passing–this is not a film about the police investigation. Which seems to have been pretty perfunctory–a Church member was present when Nikolai made his initial approach to the elders, but we never see him questioned, for example. One tiny subplot involves a US Senator, Gordon Smith, who calls the Propsts and offers ‘support,’ but who never seems to do anything. My guess is that Senator Smith’s kindness meant a lot to the actual Propst family, and his character’s inclusion in the film was on their urging.
I found the film both faith-affirming and powerful. I also think it’s a film that’s unlikely to make any sort of national break-through. I may be wrong–it’s possible that other Christians will also find it affirming and moving. But it seems to me to be a film intended primarily for LDS audiences, without much cross-over appeal. Here’s why:
Spoiler alert: I’m going to give away two major plot points in the movie. I have to. So stop reading now if you’re not interested in having the film spoiled.
But let me start with Aristotle. In the Poetics, he says something that struck me as odd the first time I encountered it:
It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity.
In other words, the fact that something may actually have happened is irrelevant to the task of creating a plot, which is concerned, not with what happened, but with what could happen. When I used to teach this stuff, the example I would often use is that of Michael Fagan, a demented homeless man who, in 1982, wandered into Buckingham Palace, and ended up in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom. Given all the security forces and apparatus that protect the Queen, this incident has be seen as not just implausible, but frankly impossible–you couldn’t put it in a movie. No one would believe it. It nonetheless really happened.
There are two moments in Saratov that seem to me to stretch the boundaries of plausibility. One happens in the States. An anonymous donor tapes an envelope with a cashier’s check for $300,000 to the door of the Propst family home. Mr. and Mrs. Propst (I should call them Brother and Sister Propst) suddenly find themselves in possession of the means to save their son. And they choose not to use it. As a matter of faith.
As Elder Propst points out in the film, it is LDS Church policy never to pay ransom for kidnapped missionaries (or other Church officials). With 75,000 young people serving full-time all around the world, many in politically unstable nations, any ransom paid to kidnappers endangers every one of them. I agree with this Church policy. I can absolutely see why it’s necessary. But if my child were kidnapped, and if I had the financial means to save him or her, it’s hard for me to imagine that I wouldn’t personally ignore that policy and save my kid.
In the film, we can see how distraught the Propsts are about the dilemma in which they find themselves. They suddenly have the money; they suddenly have the means to save their boy. I found their willingness to submit to Church policy implausible. I also completely believe that a faithful couple would act as they did. In other words, I had two reactions to the scene in which they make that decision. Part of me was going ‘oh, come on!’ And part of me was going ‘good for them. What incredible faith. Wow.’
The other big decision moment in the film comes when sad sack Nikolai doesn’t secure Elder Propst after a bathroom break. Suddenly, Propst’s no longer handcuffed to the wall. Propst and Tuttle work out a plan. They find an iron in the room (an electric iron, the kind you use to get wrinkles out of shirts). They grab a sheet–they put on their winter boots. Propst climbs up on a stool, holding the sheet; Tuttle holds the iron. They’ll call for Nikolai, and when he comes in the room, Propst will throw the sheet over his head, and Tuttle will hit him with the iron, and they’ll try to take his gun, knock him out, and escape.
When I was 20, raised on action movies, I totally would have thought this was a good idea, and that I (who have never hit someone in my life), could nonetheless overpower an armed man. It’s exactly the kind of hare-brained scheme 20 year-olds would think up. And it could work. Two healthy young men, with a rudimentary weapon and the element of surprise could possibly pull it off. It’s believable.
And then Propst has a vision; a strong message, he believes, from God. And changes his mind. Gets off the stool, puts away the sheet and iron. They take their boots off, get back on the bed. And fasten the handcuffs to the wall. Either God will protect them, or their death, if it happens, is consistent with His will. Fighting–beating Nikolai up and taking his gun and escaping–is not.
Again, as a faithful Mormon, I believe this is what actually happened. I believe that the real Elder Propst had some kind of revelation, persuading him not to attack Nikolai. I’m sure that’s what actually happened; that they nearly attacked their guard, and decided not to. But it’s not plausible. It’s not the kind of thing that happens in movies.
Not in real life, but in fictionally plausible life, 20-year olds attack and overpower their kidnappers, and parents ransom their kids. In this movie, those two things do not happen, and do not happen for reasons relating directly to the faith of the characters, and presumably, the real people to whom this really happened. This is not to bash movies. This is not to say ‘movies have worldly values.’ It is to say that Aristotle is right, and we creators of fiction generally value the plausible over the real–the possible over the true. Which makes this a faith-affirming film that, I suspect, mainstream audiences may not embrace.
Now, when we think of the ridiculous drivel that mainstream audiences do flock to, maybe this distinction wouldn’t matter. In the (fantastically commercially successful) world of Taken, the father of one of the missionaries, a former CIA operative, would fly to Russia and kill the kidnappers, and 80 or so other Russian mobsters to boot. It’d be a Liam Neeson action flick, and as idiotic as those are, we’d buy it. Or perhaps an American diplomat (female) works with a world-weary Russian cop (male), and they can’t stand each other initially, but then work together and put clues together and solve the crime, and rescue the missionaries. And fall in love.
I like Saratov better, obviously. I’m a Mormon–the film affirms my entire belief system. And I like Nikolai’s humanity, the awful trap he’s in, the way this basically decent guy suddenly finds himself kidnapping people. And I like Sergei, haunted by a terrible past, committing actions that violate his best sense of who he is. The missionaries survive, and their survival is rooted in, yes, faith, but also in believable choices made by well-defined and interestingly written characters.
I saw the film in a packed movie theater, which is significant because I saw it in Provo and there was a BYU home game the same exact time I saw the movie. (Thank goodness for DVRs). But the audience clearly was moved by the movie; saw a lot of teary faces leaving the house. I don’t think this movie will be a break-out hit. But I’m awfully glad investors put money into making it. Garrett Batty’s made a darn fine film here. We’ll see how well it does.