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FIRST-PERSON: Reviewer finds new mission field

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–A few years ago, publishing company Grace Hill Media began bringing movie studios to an awareness of just how many Christians there are in this country and that a majority of pew sitters also attend movies. Grace Hill wisely assessed that the churched needed to be courted rather than ignored. And thanks to that firm, Christian media now participate in press junkets — events where entertainment reporters interview filmmakers concerning their newest projects.

An added plus for members of the Christian press is the fact that they are forming friendships with each other, as well as meeting luminaries such as Mel Gibson, Robert Duvall, mogul Ted Turner and even Beyoncé. But on a recent trip to Los Angeles for the “Walk The Line” and “Yours, Mine And Ours” junkets it became clear why God was having Christians participate. More than on previous junkets, it became clear that many in the film industry had a skewed view of Christians and Christianity. Here was an opportunity to be ambassadors for Christ.

After viewing “Walk The Line,” a perceptive and entertaining look at the lives of music icons Johnny Cash and June Carter, the Christian press was afforded the opportunity of questioning the film’s stars, Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix. Now, the first thing learned as interviewers is that the subject of faith needs to be broached with delicacy. For example: “You’re playing a Christian, are you a Christian?” is better received this way: “Reese, you’re playing a woman whose faith was very important to her. I noticed that you’re wearing a cross. May I ask, is faith a part of your life?” This brought a broad grin from the unthreatened actress, who brightly responded: “Uh-huh. I was raised going to church every Sunday and I still go most Sundays.” The actress then assured the group that her children were also attending church.

The success of “Walk The Line” depends on the portrayal of the Man in Black. Though Joaquin Phoenix is smaller and not known for musical ability, he steps into Johnny’s boots with sincerity and style. It is a performance that touches the soul and will no doubt be considered come Oscar time. As an interviewee, however, he began as a challenge. He entered the room wearing both a snarl and a chip.

The first inquiry was an expected one, the one he was going to hear all day; “What was it like meeting Johnny Cash?” His response: “Can’t you guys just read the other interviews?”

Of course, that’s a no-no in the news-gathering arena. The lady who asked the question handled his response warmly, yet with determination. He gave in, telling of how moving it was to experience the love that was evident between June and Johnny. After dinner, he was serenaded by the duo in their living room. “It’s hard not to be cynical about the marriages of iconic figures,” he said. “Most don’t last. So it was nice to witness what they shared. I sensed a profound love between them.”

It took a few minutes for the actor to appreciate that the follow-up questions had a distinction from those of other groups. He seemed to appreciate the spiritually themed inquires which in turn caused him to offer more about the Cashes.

“There was a turning point for John. June was obviously a big part of that, in helping him achieve sobriety and maintain it…. Through June, through his faith, John found that connection again.”

During press junkets the press gets to stay in exquisite hotels, loaded with every luxury imaginable. And then there’s the food -– oh, the food, the glorious, never-ending free food. This may raise the question: Does the pampering and the gastronomical satisfaction influence the review? Can cinema critics be bought with extravagance and chocolate éclairs? Believe it or not, that’s really not the goal of the studios. But some Christian writers avoid junkets for fear of an appearance of impropriety. That view is respected, but at the same time, when else would Christian writers have the opportunity to ask Reese Witherspoon if faith is a part of her life?

A personal note: Last year I had a special moment with Pierce Brosnan as we exited a hotel elevator during the “Laws of Attraction” junket. Alone but for his agent, he asked who I wrote for. After learning that I was a member of the Christian press, he sought my opinion of “The Passion of the Christ.” Mr. Brosnan then told me that Mel Gibson had showed it to him. He loved it. So, there I was walking through a swank Beverly Hills hotel with the biggest movie star in the world, talking about the other biggest movie star in the world. What followed assured me that my junket attendance was justified.

As we separated in the lobby, he going to a shiny stretch limo, me to a bruised yellow taxi, I offered, “God bless you, Pierce.” Looking directly at me, with complete sincerity, he replied “God bless you, too.”

During the junket for the kid-pleasing “Yours, Mine and Ours,” prejudice toward the Christian press was unmistakable. It became alarmingly clear that there was a distrust and/or disdain on the part of some in the secular press toward their Christian counterparts. At lunch two writers were overheard discussing the Christian pack. “They asked some really good questions,” came from one had who mistakenly sat in that room. His cynical friend responded, “Oh, I couldn’t take that group.”

Life is the mission field and the world needs to see beyond the foibles and faults of His followers. How? Believers must not cloister themselves, but let His light shine, no matter the workplace.
Phil Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective. For further information, go to his website at www.moviereporter.com. For reviews of “Walk the Line” and “Yours, Mine And Ours,” type “Boatwright” in the BPNews.net search box.

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  • Phil Boatwright