Billy Graham is not one of those tainted evangelists who needs his halo polished or his image white-washed. He scrupulously avoided the pitfalls of his profession over the years, had an early enough connection to the civil rights movement to stand with the righteous and made a point of distancing himself from the more acquisitive and reactionary preachers who followed him.
Any hint of rough edges the man might have had are nowhere to be found in Billy: The Early Years, a new film biography in theaters now. That may make for a perfectly saintly rendition of the man. But it's a dull drama indeed that doesn't give us that Prince Hal-to-Henry V arc, from misspent youth to a grown man of purpose. You'd think Hollywood vet Robby Benson, who directed this, would have realized that.
The Early Years gives us a Charlotte, N.C., teen with a black best friend, thus decades ahead of the curve in racial tolerance (an exaggeration, perhaps), a young man who learned his pitch as a Fuller Bush salesman, who stood up to the narrow minded Bob Jones, of Bob Jones University fame, and who dealt with his own crisis of faith by rejecting the rationalism and anti-supernaturalism of his friend and fellow preacher Charles Templeton by standing on the Bible as "literal truth."
The story is framed within a series of deathbed flashbacks by the aged, haunted Templeton ( Martin Landau), a man who co-founded, with Graham, Youth for Christ. Templeton hallucinates in between questions from a TV interview (Jennifer O'Neal, of Summer of '42). He's the one who sets the tone.
"Billy's life was like a fairy tale."
And so it was, from Bob Jones to Florida Bible College, to a college presidency when he was still quite young, all the way to the Los Angeles "crusade" in the late 1940s, the event that made him a celebrity. He meets and is rejected by Miss Wrong in college, then finds and courts his eventual wife, Ruth (Stefanie Butler) and practices his preaching style -- fiery from the first -- to stuffed animals and his bedroom mirror.
Graham recruits the great gospel baritone George Beverly Shea to his team, takes over a radio show and builds something of a reputation. He borrows ideas from other evangelists, using the hymn "Just as I Am" and an altar call finale for his sermons, for instance.
What the script leaves out are the telling anecdotes of childhood, how his daddy had him and his sister drink beer until they got sick, giving them a lifelong aversion to alcohol. We never see the role the influential right wing publisher William Randolph Hearst played in making him famous, a man who liked Graham's anti-communism and telegraphed his various newspapers the instructions, "Puff Graham." That stuff -- not necessarily "dirt," just details -- is fascinating. And not here.
It's telling because the only bad rap that's stuck to Graham over the decades is his over-fondness for the powerful, from Hearst to Richard Nixon, who suckered him into backing the Vietnam War and even drew him into anti-Semitic phone conversations.
It's more appropriate than ironic that a descendant of the richer-than-rich industrialist Armand Hammer, Armie Hammer, should be cast as the young Graham. Pity he has so little of the evangelist's fire. He lacks those scary-intense eyes that made you believe he believed your very soul hung in the balance. That's the real shortcoming here. A bland leading man in a movie without much of a biographical spark to it makes for a dull sermon indeed.
Graham's ministry has used film effectively over the years, making more than 100 movies, often dramas about people in crisis whose lives were changed when they attended a Graham crusade and answered his altar call. In this film, which the ministry did not produce, Benson tries to replicate that. He just left out the life in crisis and the man with the passion, the fire in his eyes, in filming it.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times