THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE CASE FOR CHRIST"
This is it right here. This is exactly the standard that every faith-based film should aspire to. The Case for Christ doesn't have any of the absurd persecution paranoia that marred the God's Not Dead pictures, nor does it have the off-puttingly heavy-handed tone that is part-and-parcel of many movies in the genre. Director Jon Gunn previously made the underrated Like Dandelion Dust, and he fundamentally understands that plot and characterization have to stand as equals with the message. In this instance, he's got a remarkable true story to work with. The result is as good a faith-based film as has yet been made.
Set in 1980, The Case for Christ stars Mike Vogel (The Help) as Lee Strobel, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He's just broken a big story about Ford Pintos exploding. (If you're of a certain age, you'll remember that one.) His career is ascending, but there are problems at home. Lee's wife Leslie (Parenthood's Erika Christensen) has abandoned their shared atheism and started going to church with the kindly nurse who saved their young daughter from choking in a restaurant one night. Lee resents her excursion into religion, insisting that she is merely deluding herself. Wanting to prove to her that the Bible is full of made-up stories, he uses his investigative skills to look into the most important of all Biblical tales: the Resurrection.
Through the course of his probe, Lee researches the veracity of Biblical accounts and talks to a psychologist (Faye Dunaway) about whether 500 eyewitnesses could have tricked themselves into believing they saw Jesus walking around after he died. Theorizing that Christ may have either faked his own death or been mistaken for dead when he was pulled down from the cross, Lee meets with a medical expert. What he gets is a stunning look at the things modern medical science can tell us about the circumstances of Christ's death, as well as what they mean.
It's no spoiler to say that the real Lee Strobel – now a best-selling author – became a firm believer after his investigation. What he found was too convincing for him to dismiss, despite the fact that dismissing Jesus' divinity is precisely what he set out to do. The Case for Christ presents some of the key facts he learned. If you're a believer, there's enough here to confirm – and likely even expand upon – what you are already convinced of. If you aren't a believer, you may still find yourself thinking Hmmm... on multiple occasions. The movie follows Lee step-by-step through the process, allowing the viewer to contemplate the evidence with him at every turn. In that sense, it plays not unlike any good journalism drama.
That alone would be enough for a worthy film. The Case for Christ goes one better by telling a good domestic story, too. More than a few scenes are dedicated to showing how conflicting beliefs begin to create a wedge in the Strobels' marriage. Lee cannot abide by the fact that Leslie starts to embrace religious faith. He loves her, yet he also ridicules her. She, meanwhile, grows distraught that he won't respect her views, much less take them into serious consideration. In this instance, it's Christianity, but the movie's portrait of how differing worldviews can take a toll on a marriage is solid enough that it could just as easily be about politics or anything else potentially divisive.
Mike Vogel is excellent, avoiding easy cliché at every turn. The actor plays Lee Strobel as inquisitive, stubborn, and analytical, while also making the character's eventual transition feel authentic. This is not Kevin Sorbo in God's Not Dead, ham-handedly seeing the light while overacting as if there's no tomorrow. Vogel gets to the heart of it, which is that Lee is a man of provable evidence, and when the evidence directly contradicts his pre-conceived assertion, he has no choice but to acknowledge it. Erika Christensen is equally good, touchingly conveying the fear Leslie has that her husband may never be able to accept her again after she accepts the Lord.
The Case for Christ comes from the PureFlix studio, so it was obviously designed to appeal to Christian audiences. That's totally fine. But the movie is well-done enough to have mainstream appeal, too. Yes, it's about an atheist couple who become born again; it doesn't have the fire-and-brimstone sermonizing that some faith-based films do, though. Gunn and his team are smart enough to know that they have a genuinely engrossing personal story here. They tell it with straightforward efficiency. No embellishments are needed.
Lee Strobel had a change of heart after taking the time to examine the issue with great scrutiny. The Case for Christ meaningfully, entertainingly shows how this came to be. All faith-based films should be this good.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Case for Christ is rated PG for thematic elements including medical descriptions of crucifixion, and incidental smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.
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