(2017—Director: Jon Gunn)
★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Preachy, typically fideistic stories with unrestrained acting and incompetent filmmaking are often the norms in Christian films. As such, they easily become the fodder of mainstream and high-brow filmgoers, discouraging Christians worldwide. Fortunately, this is mostly not the case with The Case for Christ, a biographical drama about its real-life protagonist—today a Christian author and apologist—and his life-changing attempt to discredit the historical Jesus. (The film borrows its title from the author’s 1998 book.)
It is 1980. Mike Vogel (The Help, Bates Motel, Under the Dome) plays Lee Strobel, then the star investigative reporter for The Chicago Tribune and fresh off the release of his first book. When his daughter survives a near-fatal choking incident, he and his wife Leslie (Erika Christensen, NBC’s Parenthood) are suddenly faced with the mysterious wonders of God, which she decides to explore further while he, a staunch atheist, leaves it alone. As Leslie grows closer in her Christian faith, Lee gets assigned to cover the trial of a suspected police shooter. Lee’s resentment towards his wife’s gradual conversion impels him to also devote time to debunking the historical Jesus behind her back, traveling to experts in various fields across the country. The experts, much to his surprise, give Lee answers contrary to what he originally expected, causing him to reconsider his quest. Whether it will cost him his marriage or his career as a journalist, Lee will not stop until he disproves the historical Jesus or—however unlikely to him—he is forced to accept that a man named Jesus Christ really did exist, die, and rose from the dead.
What first struck me about the film was its genuine cinematic competence compared to other Christian films. Director Jon Gunn surprises with his film’s period accuracy, achieved by employing warm, but admittedly tacky, shades of brown in both costumes as well as production design—peculiar to other films taking place towards the end of the 1970s. Also refreshing is cinematographer Brian Shanley and how he avoids falling prey to the bland, flat camerawork of Christian films set in the present day. The whole project’s visual aesthetic and narrative tone feels as though the crew took inspiration from films such as Argo, All the President’s Men, and Spotlight.
Screenwriter and co-producer Brian Bird (executive producer for Hallmark Channel’s What Calls the Heart) lays out a three-pronged story structure, consisting of Lee’s attempt at debunking the historical Jesus with professional interviews, the domestic conflict with his wife’s growing Christian faith, and Lee’s current assignment on the detained cop shooter. An admirable structure on paper, yes, but the result here feels rather unbalanced. The film rushes through Lee’s official assignment, often forcing its parallels with his spiritual journey. Leslie’s storyline, meanwhile, carries the cheesy quality of most other Christian films (all of which show a reluctance to commit to Catholic faith’s fullness), even giving us a heavy-handed moment where Mike Vogel as Lee drunkenly accuses his wife, “You’re cheating on me…with JESUS!” The excessive sentimentality goes so far as to deprive of screentime a poignant subplot involving Lee’s estranged parents that also severely neglects the great talents of actor Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, The Descendants).
Lee’s spiritual journey and interviews with various professionals on certain theories that attempt to disprove the historical Jesus make up the best scenes of the film. Most of the reasonable counter-arguments against the typical charges find themselves here, including the many unearthed New Testament copies (a number that dwarfs those of the famous writings of the day, like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), how women discover the empty tomb in all four gospels (despite the common distrust of female testimonies at the time), the dilemma of many martyrs, the improbability of mass hallucinations, and the medical and physiological ramifications of crucifixion. In discussing the last topic, medical expert Dr. Alexander Metherell (Tom Nowicki) even matter-of-factly discredits the Muslim faith, whose sacred Quran suggests that Jesus survived the crucifixion despite being written more than six centuries after Christ. Above all, the scenes showcase Lee’s seasoned reporting skills (much credit to Mike Vogel for his honest, no-nonsense portrayal). Keep an eye out for a truly impressive moment involving Lee, a payphone, and an “Out of Order” sign.
To compare the Lee Strobel of today with his hotshot reporter of 1980 presents a compelling conversion story for today’s Christians, and The Case for Christ effectively finds him at the border between unbelief and belief. Despite a rough and imbalanced story structure, the film’s scenes of demonstrating the reasonableness, not to mention the fittingness, of Christ’s earthly life, death, and resurrection will fascinate even the most resistant of viewers, which can encourage proper discourse between believers and non-believers. Achieving that alone would make this film more worthwhile than most of it already is.