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"THE CASE FOR CHRIST"
(2017) (Mike Vogel, Erika Christensen) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: When his atheist wife suddenly turns religious, an investigative reporter tries to disprove the foundations of Christianity.
PLOT:
It's 1980 and Lee Strobel (MIKE VOGEL) is a legal affairs reporter for the Chicago Tribune. His editor, Joe Dubois (FRANKIE FAISON), has assigned him to cover the story of a suspect, James Hicks (RENELL GIBS), who's allegedly shot a cop, Joseph Koblinsky (JUDD LORMAND), and is currently awaiting trial. But his biggest investigative piece is the result of a night out at a restaurant with his wife, Leslie (ERIKA CHRISTENSEN), and their young daughter, Alison (HALEY ROSENWASSER).

When the latter ends up with a gumball in their throat and is unable to breathe, Alfie Davis (L. SCOTT CALDWELL) springs into action. A nurse, she claims this was divine intervention, what with having planned on being at another restaurant but choosing this one instead. While thankful, Lee, an atheist, chalks that up to a fortunate coincidence, but Leslie, also an atheist, begins to have second thoughts. Accordingly, she seeks out answers from Alfie who ends up guiding her back to the church where Leslie rediscovers her long dormant and previously discarded Christianity.

None of that sits well with Lee who is nothing but a facts man, and nothing about Christianity adds up for him, a sentiment shared by his former mentor and fellow atheist, Ray Nelson (BRETT RICE), who had a daughter go through the same thing. When Lee brings all of this up to his devout coworker, Kenny London (MIKE PNIEWSKI), that man challenges Lee to do his due investigative reporter diligence and see if the original foundations of Christianity hold up under scrutiny.

As his marriage begins to wither from the growing divide between him and his wife, and as he continues to investigate Hicks' cop shooting case, Lee sets out to interview as many experts as possible, all in hopes of finding one or more holes in the origins of Christianity and thus return his wife to her former self.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I have a friend and fellow former critic who was born into a family that started one of the larger evangelical churches in the U.S. From birth through his schooling, he was a devout follower who adhered to and abided by every tenent of his church and Christianity. And then in his twenties, he saw the Robert Zemeckis film "Contact" (based on the Carl Sagan novel of the same name), had an epiphany of sorts, and then left his former faith and lifestyle to become an atheist.

I can't say that I've heard of any other accounts of that particular film having that particular sort of unintended results, but it's a fascinating story especially as it resulted in a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree behavioral turn that had him abandoning most everything he was taught and believed in up to that point.

While I'm sure there are some people who will claim that's the work of the Devil or the sinful, leftist elite in Hollywood, I simply chalk that up to the power of the cinema in opening one's eyes to a world and belief system beyond one's upbringing. Of course, evangelicals have been doing the same thing for a long time, with faith-based movies being one of the newer tools in their arsenal.

The latest such cinematic effort is "The Case For Christ," based on the 1998 book of the same name by Lee Strobel, which itself was based on his conversion from steadfast atheist to converted Christian in the early 1980s. Then, he was a journalist for the Chicago Tribune and took it upon himself to investigate the foundations of Christianity following his wife's conversion. With what he uncovered (or didn't uncover), he himself converted, eventually left the world of being a reporter and became a pastor and Christian apologetic author.

In the film that's based on that part of his life, Mike Vogel (bearing a striking resemblance to Billy Crudup in 1980s attire, haircut and mustache) is a facts man, just like his wife (Erika Christensen). But when a nurse (L. Scott Caldwell) just so happens to be at a restaurant where she saves the life of their young daughter (Haley Rosenwasser), Leslie has an awakening of sorts of her long-buried religious self.

That doesn't sit well with the avowed atheist, and thus he sets out to disprove the main tenants of Christianity -- mainly the death and resurrection of Jesus -- the way any reporter would -- by interviewing various experts, gathering and examining the details, and then coming to a scientific conclusion. It's certainly an interesting setup, particularly in the marriage dynamic of a man and woman who suddenly are out odds in the way they believe and how that will ultimately affect their relationship and young daughter's upbringing.

Unfortunately, what follows is a bit too heavy-handed in terms of debunking the debunker. Lee examines various aspects of Christianity's beginnings by questioning those experts in various fields, with the flick being careful to point out that some are believers and some are not as if to give off the appearance of being evenhanded and fair in this examination.

But many of the "facts" presented to him are of the straw man argument variety. And, instead of being the seasoned investigative reporter he supposedly is, he simply takes their word for what it is (rather than challenging such assertions) and then moves on to the next line of questioning.

It quickly becomes all too apparent that the flick -- directed by Jon Gunn and written by Brian Bird -- is simply checking the boxes on the various arguments that have questioned Christianity over the years, with each rebuttal serving to dwindle the atheist's quiver of weapons he has to disprove the religion and get his wife back. Regardless of your stance on the subject, you can't argue that various written works -- Christian related or secular -- that are more than a thousand years old and which were written years, decades or centuries after the fact are not always the most reliable accounts of what really happened.

Thus, what starts as an intriguing interpersonal drama segues too far into propaganda where the main character doesn't act in accordance with his introduced behavioral and professional tendencies. Yes, characters can and nearly always do change over the course of a film's runtime, but that needs to be organic rather than artificial which is how things increasingly feel here.

It doesn't help that a subplot involving a cop shooter turns out to be present only to eventually include the dialogue of the now disproven reporter stating, "I missed the truth, I didn't see it," while the suspect replies with, "You didn't want to see it." And to add icing to that cake, we have the Kansas song "Carry On Wayward Son" playing during a montage to drive home the point of "There will be peace when you are done."

All of that said, the performances are generally decent (particularly from the leads) with a few notable thespians such as Faye Dunaway and Robert Forster appearing in very small parts. Production values are solid, and the film nicely captures the look and feel of the early 1980s. I just wish everything about the flick wasn't so painfully obvious.

While it's possible it might convert some viewers over into believers, I wish it would have done so via a cinematic vehicle as brilliant and engaging as "Contact" (even for some of the devout), or in a subtle way as was the case with "Field of Dreams" that's subtly layered with all sorts of Christian themes without pounding home its message. "The Case for Christ" is filled with too much straw and thus rates as only a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed March 31, 2017 / Posted April 7, 2017


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