“This is not a traditional faith-based film but more a hope-based one. I want people to walk away feeling inspired or to become a better person. I set out to tell Brandon’s story.” – Brian Reindl, writer/executive producer, Greater
I lead with that quote from Greater’s writer/executive producer Brian Reindl, because that quote helped me move past anger about this film to relative indifference. We have a policy here at Reel Spirituality to not feature purely negative reviews, so for the one hundred and thirty minutes I spent watching Greater, I didn’t think I was going to be able to review this film at all. Then I read that quote, and something essential clicked for me.
Greater appears to be a faith-affirming film, but the movie affirms faith only in the most general way. Brandon Burlsworth, the late All-American lineman on whom the film is based, was certainly a Christian, and his faith clearly guided his actions both on and off the field. That faith is alluded to in Greater, but it is not fleshed out in any detail. No one in the movie talks about Jesus. In the movie, Brandon does what he does because he believes in “god” and that what he is doing is “god’s will.” His belief is proven true in the movie by the results of his actions – he successfully walks-on to the Arkansas football team, is awarded a scholarship, and is later drafted by the Indianapolis Colts. Then he dies in a car accident. In the film, his death starts the film, and the movie juxtaposes his life with his older brother’s struggles to keep “the faith” in the face of Brandon’s sudden and tragic death.
But what is this faith that Greater preaches? “Have faith in whatever you need to have faith in if it inspires you to work hard,” Greater implies, “You can rise from any level to achieve your dreams if you just work hard and don’t give up.” This is an American ideal. It is the American faith, ignorant of any of the systemic issues that plague many members of American society. It is not the Gospel, which privileges falling down instead of rising up, self-sacrifice instead of self-assertion, humility instead of pride, meekness instead of strength. The Gospel is centered on Christ, and anything that we claim as “faith affirming” must affirm faithfulness to the example of Christ. Brandon’s brother’s struggle with doubt throughout the film is a struggle to keep the American faith, not the Christian one.
But Greater isn’t “faith-based,” says the film’s writer, so we don’t have to worry about that do we? Maybe we do, because Greater certainly tries to baptize its kind of faith in the Christian faith. I mean that literally – an opening scene in the film shows Brandon being baptized; his most prized possession is his copy of Pilgrim’s Progress; “I’ll Fly Away” dominates the soundtrack. Equating the American faith in hard work with the Christian faith in Christ is something we need to be wary of lest we forget the true transformative power of the later in favor of the former.
But, Elijah, is Greater any good? You’ve written a lot of words already, and you haven’t actually reviewed the film yet. That’s true.
These days with cheaper cameras, cheaper post production techniques, and cheaper editing equipment, independent filmmakers are capable of making films that look good rather easily. I don’t mean to suggest that making a movie is easy. It never is, but it is easier these days to make it look easy. Greater looks fine if you enjoy scenes bathed in light and unobtrusive editing linking them together. The story is compelling. The characters could be better drawn. The football scenes are unfortunately bad, as if scant attention was paid to whether or not Brandon played offense or defense. I suppose the point is that he is playing at all, so it kind of doesn’t matter. The scene that has him tripping over his own feet at the walk-on tryouts is laughable, seeing as how he was awarded a full ride scholarship to another school in a previous scene. I guess “fat boy falls down go boom” to “All-American draft pick” is a more compelling plot arc than “overlooked good player gets better and then gets drafted.” I’ve seen worse. Greater is a motivational poster on the wall of a dentist office where “I’ll Fly Away” plays over the tinny speakers overhead. See it if you want. Just don’t pretend any of it is Christian.