I’m a notorious Grinch on the subject of religious film.
I have a theory that the standards for religious films are so low because they only tell the audience what they want to hear. The popular God’s Not Dead, for example, is a lousy movie on multiple levels, made to pander to our lowest intellectual tendencies; the part of us that wants a movie to spoonfeed us proof that atheists are all a bunch of idiots. Beyond this main thread, there are about a dozen other plots in God’s Not Dead, a hodgepodge of unrelated ideas and clumsily connected characters, including Duck Dynasty guy for some reason in possibly the movie’s dumbest scene. An ambush reporter who doesn’t talk over her subject but instead allows him to speak while respectfully listening? Give me a break.
I’m mentioning my prejudice to indicate how how surprised I am to say this: Witnesses is a great movie.
Here is a movie that understands that its role is not to be a sermon or a polemic, but an emotional journey. It doesn’t flatter the audience by telling them how right they are, it “discomforts the comfortable,” and takes the audience to doubt and back.
Witnesses is based on the mostly familiar story of Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. It’s framed by an interview David Whitmer (Michael Zuccola/Paul Kandarian (older)) gave to a reporter as an old man, as well as an incident back in 1833 where he was ordered at gunpoint by a mob to renounce his witness. Even though Whitmer frames the story, most of the heavy dramatic lifting in the movie is done in Martin Harris (Lincoln Hoppe), in the turmoil leading up to and perpetually following the loss of the first manuscript.
Hoppe gives a unique performance, taking us through his Harris’s desperate conflict to reconsile his powerful doubts with his powerful faith. He has a face that is constantly showing his thought process for us to see; big, formalistic expressions playing on top of each other.
Director Mark Goodman’s style here is moderately expressionistic – emphasizing the emotional perspectives of the characters – but it is also grounded in reality. There are no angelic choirs swelling in the background when the prophet speaks. The camera rarely engages in the pointless “artistic” shots endemic to independent film. The gold plates are not magical glowing relics, they are a solid presence throughout the film. Joseph Smith (Paul Wuthrich) even uses them as an improvised club in an early scene when being chased by thieves. This lack of distracting adornment makes the situation of the members of the Smith family living in close contact and even touching the plates with but never seeing them directly even more emotionally surreal.
A lesser movie would have Joseph giving the audence a speech about why he does not show the plates to the world and Harris should just have faith. Witnesses shows, rather than lectures. Joseph says that he intends to keep his covenant about the plates. Martin Harris makes the same covenant about the 116 pages, and we see in visual and emotional terms how he lets his covenant slip away while Joseph stays firm to his.
We are taken through the difficult journey of the witnesses, which combines the despair of not being able to see the plates with the later despair of disillusionment in Kirtland. Having already seen the angel and plates, they still experienced a crisis of faith, leaving Kirtland and the Church after condemnation from a demagoging Sidney Rigdon (Joseph Carlson).
Two of the Three Witnesses, Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery (Caleb J. Spivak, who looks uncannily like the real Cowdery), rejoined the Church years layer. David Whitmer never did, though his witness survived both the guns of an angry mob and 50 years of bitterness at the church.
But if you’re expecting a movie to give you proof of how right you are and how dumb those atheists and anoying evangelical billboards are, Witnesses might not be for you. Witnesses shows us the emotional problem of being lost in doubt and points toward the way out. Whitmer says in the end that “The Book of Mormon was not meant to be proven, it was meant to be read, and then asked of to the creator of all.”
If you want the full stories and facts about the witnesses, try to hunt down a copy of Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard Lloyd Anderson, the late BYU historian and my inspiration and friend. Witnesses is dedicated to his memory and – to my surprise – it is a beautiful and fitting tribute.