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Three Films: Jesus Revolution, Living, and A Man Called Otto

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
May 9, 2023; ported here on May 29, 2024

Jesus Revolution

Atheists and others should watch Jesus Revolution to get a sense of the appeal of modern American Protestantism to many of its adherents. Based on real events, the film portrays the relationship between an established conservative Protestant pastor and a young "hippie" street preacher who team up to offer an updated version of the faith to a younger, more free-spirited audience.

The conservative-hippie combo felt very much like home to me as I flashed to my childhood memories of my family's Western Colorado independent Protestant church. The church itself felt very traditional, with its organ-led hymnals, but the summer church camp in which the church participated featured popular music and a "hipper" approach.

The filmmakers very much are sympathetic to the religious message of the film, as they make clear in the special features. The film contrasts the deep "truth" of Christianity with the empty quest for truth in postmodern philosophy and drug use. To me, though, the film illustrates the similarities of the two approaches. For all its talk of truth, Christianity, at least of the style presented in the film, is all about social approval, a sense of belonging, and catharsis. The point is emotional fulfillment; the facts of reality are beside the point. The Christians do have the advantage over the regular hippies in discouraging self-destructive drug abuse.

Kelsey Grammer and Jonathan Roumie are especially good portraying the conservative and hippie preachers, respectively.

One nice touch (and I have no idea how closely the film follows reality) is its portrayal of the self-serving, "ego"-driven turn of the hippie preacher, who starts to perform questionable "faith healings" and turn the movement into something of a personality cult. The older minister puts the kibosh on that. Unfortunately, bogus "faith healings" have long been a feature of strands of American Protestantism, as James Randi and others have documented.

I do think the film implicitly offers some potentially dangerous advice. The Christians pray over a drug addict, and, lo and behold!, he is cured of his addiction. It's a miracle! Now, it is no big surprise that a man suffering depression, isolation, and drug addiction might be able to kick the addiction once he finds a welcoming and supportive community that strongly discourages drug use. But many people with drug addictions (never mind more squarely physical ailments) will find that prayer alone will not fix them. People who expect miracles set themselves up for likely disappointment, and they might be tempted to forego more realistic strategies in the meantime.

Despite these issues, I very much enjoyed the film. Most fundamentally it is about the human longing for community. Taken as a study of the power of ideology and social forces, it is a film even, or especially, an atheist can love.


I loved the movie Living starring the masterful Bill Nighy and the delightful Aimee Lou Wood. Based on the 1952 Japanese film Ikuru, Living is about an English civil servant whose idea of working is shuffling papers and who has otherwise given up on his life. But then he gets a terminal diagnosis, and that prompts him to kick things into gear before it's too late.

The fellow (Nighy) befriends an innocent and charming younger woman from work (Wood), spends a night on the town with a sympathetic stranger, and decides to do something worthwhile in his job for once. The movie is beautifully filmed and hearkens back to an earlier age of cinema. A masterpiece.

A Man Called Otto

After the lead character of A Man Called Otto tried and failed a second time to kill himself, I started to doubt the wisdom of letting my seven-year-old son watch the film. Surprisingly, given its intense treatment of suicide, it's rated only PG-13.

Regardless, this is a great movie about finding a way to live again after suffering great personal tragedy. Otto (Tom Hanks) recently lost his wife, and, initially, in his depression, he feels ready to "join her." Instead, slowly, he finds new connections with his neighbors, especially a new arrival Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and her family.

The film is based on the Swedish novel A Man Called Ove and a Swedish film of the same title. I have not (yet) watched the Swedish version so I cannot compare the two.

The American version features Tom Hanks and his son, Truman, playing older and younger version of Otto. The film tells the story of Otto and his wife in flashbacks. Although the Hanks are father and son, I found their respective portrayals of Otto, although both good, not to mesh well. But this is a minor flaw (if it is one) in a film with surprising heart.

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