• September 26, 2011
  • From the Team
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Machine Gun Preacher: Yea or Nay?

Gerard Butler stars as the Reverend Sam Childers, the Christian ex-biker who intends to kill Joseph Kony with the help of his heavily-armed Sudanese militia. Just like us, he wants to see an end to the LRA, and this movie could have been the avenue to generate a strong cultural response–like Hotel Rwanda or Blood Diamond. But his methods are a little….troubling, as you’ll see if you read the in-depth profile that Vanity Fair published on the man who inspired the movie.

I remember reading it and being disturbed by his methods and his professed motivations. On the other hand, wasn’t he just trying to remove Joseph Kony from the battle field? Isn’t that central to our goals, too? But then I stopped playing devil’s advocate and decided that the end really and truly does not justify the means—not with the slew of unintended consequences that come with his brand of justice.

Last week Foreign Policy published a critical article about the movie and the man who inspired it. The author sets the stage, questions the veracity of Childers’s claimed accomplishments then finally gets to his main, and most salient, point:

“But let’s put aside the question of whether every word of Childers’s book and his recent interviews is true. It’s his narcissistic model of armed humanitarianism that we should be worried about. In his book, Childers describes a scene in which he and his gang of SPLA soldiers drive toward a group of LRA militiamen, firing indiscriminately — at God’s urging, of course. It may look cool on the big screen, but this crosses a line from humanitarianism to misguided vigilantism. Childers’s underlying assumption seems to be that the region’s conflicts would end if the good guys could just kill enough bad guys. This assumes not only that the good guy can magically discern who the bad guys are, but that killing — from attacking the LRA to selling weapons — doesn’t fuel future conflict.”

With Marc Forster directing and the star power of Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan, this movie had the potential to bring awareness of the LRA to a new audience that wouldn’t otherwise engage with the conflict. And maybe it still will. That would be a silver lining to a story about a lone, gun-packing American trying to save the children of Africa.

But it sounds like the film is not only a poor movie with a morally-questionable “true story” as inspiration, but if it generates any awareness it will likely be directed towards Childers’s orphanage and the Angels of East Africa (the site certainly got a face lift from its pre-Hollywood days).

I believe that Sam Childers wants to see an end to the conflict as much as we do. Ultimately, we are on the same side. We want the LRA disbanded, children returned home, and peace restored to the region. But like I said before, I have serious doubts about whether our mutually-desired end justifies Childers’s means.

I am also curious about whether the distribution of this film will have a positive or negative effect on American perception of the conflict. I can see it trivializing it through melodrama, or generating legitimate conversations that weren’t happening before.

A.O. Scott answers that question for himself in his review for the New York Times:

“At the end of a movie like this one, with its topical bent and its sweeping emotions, you are meant to feel exhilarated and inspired, newly aware of the plight of suffering people and awed by one man’s dedication to their cause. But if those feelings arrive in the wake of “Machine Gun Preacher,” it will in some ways be in spite of the movie, which turns a fascinating true story into a welter of action-movie attitudes and sentimental clichés.”

In the end, I think Hollywood missed an opportunity by choosing the right region and the right conflict, but the wrong anti-hero.

Please join the conversation. Do you agree? Beg to differ?


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