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There is a certain grace and tranquility to the North Carolina accent that is like no other. You can hear it when Billy Graham speaks, though not quite as much when he preaches or gets excited. It is with such grace and tranquility that Armie Hammer embodies the character of the young Billy Graham.
Was there a snowball's chance of a biographical movie about an evangelist even getting a sniff by the Academy, Hammer would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. I do not say that lightly. This is not simply the reflection of a Christian who wishes attention and adulation for an uplifting and God-honoring movie. Content and subject-matter aside, Hammer is that good.
Billy: The Early Years follows Graham from high school through his first major crusade in Los Angeles in 1949. It is told via the modern-day recollections of an elderly Charles Templeton (Martin Landau), a friend and mentor of Graham in his early days.
Growing out of a high-school skepticism for evangelists ("they all just fleece the flock") and to an extent faith in general, Graham senses the call by God to serve Him while attending a tent-revival meeting, which he goes to more on a dare than for any other reason.
He starts by attending (what was then called) Bob Jones Academy. His tenure there was short-lived, culminating (in the movie, at least) with a meeting with Jones (Sr) himself. Graham had some legitimate questions about faith, but Jones countered that he (Jones) already had all the answers, and had already made all the mistakes so that Graham wouldn't have to. I don't know if such a display of epistemological arrogance was actually ever held by Jones, but it is in keeping with several BJU graduates that I have known in my life. (And alternatively, I know other BJU graduates who are not of such a persuasion.) Graham transferred to Florida Bible Institute and then later attended Wheaton College (where he met his wife, Ruth Bell). It is at Wheaton that Graham has his first attempt at preaching. Suffice it to say that it doesn't go well. However, his professor says to him, "I look forward to what God is going to do with you." Billy nervously asks, "In a good way?", and his professor affirms this.
As he recalls Graham, Templeton states that Graham grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting. And such is the feel of these early days. There is a gentleness and calmness infused both in the movie and in Graham's very being. And, I believe that these qualities are part of what God uses to help him through the harder issues that arise.
Similarly, the first hour or so of the movie is infused with light humor that brings humanity back to a man who has preached before millions. Whether it's Graham's school-boy-like crush on Bell, his early fumbling practices in preaching (which often seem like a wild caricature of Graham's actual style), or his fainting spell at the birth of his first daughter, the humor helps us identify with him such that, when those harder issues arise, we go along with him into them.
Having finally gotten his preaching chops down, Graham is recruited to go on a preaching tour with well-known evangelist Charles Templeton. The two men become close friends, with the seasoned Templeton mentoring Graham on occasion. But as time passes, Templeton begins having a crisis of faith, largely under the age-old argument of "how can there be a loving God when there is so much suffering in the world?" These doubts grow in Templeton's mind after the preaching tour, and he eventually leaves his pastorate, accepting a position at Princeton.
At the time, Graham praises Templeton's integrity (of not preaching what he doesn't believe) and declares that he will not judge his friend, nor stand with those that do, but admonishes others to pray for Templeton. One can sense a belief and hope in Graham that Templeton will return to the fold. This makes it even harder when Graham encounters Templeton later, and Templeton lambastes him, showing not a questioning soul, but an utter rejection of the Christian faith.
Herein lies another scene showing Hammer's acting performance. In three minutes of Templeton's tirade, Hammer has 2 lines. But we see his face transition from shock at how his friend is talking to him, to horror and disbelief at what he is hearing, to anger not at Templeton, but at the way in which the enemy has blinded his friend.
Having to be honest with himself, Graham has a bit of a faith crisis, too, because of Templeton's statements. But in a time of prayer, seeking answers from God, Graham comes to the conclusion that he must believe what the Bible says and trust God to carry him through the issues where human doubt arises. This can be a tough pill to swallow, but Hammer pulls off Graham's encounter with this issue quite skillfully.
Theologically, this movie pulls extremely few punches. The s-word (no, not that one, I mean "sin") is used liberally in the preaching scenes, and man's need for Jesus (yes, the J-word is used often, too) is re-iterated several times. Conversely, Templeton's later statements (portrayed clearly as being wrong) sound like a modern-day tract for universalism, including allusions to multiple paths to God and the belief that Jesus was not the Son of God. By citing both what is right and what is wrong, the screenwriters make it very clear where they (and by proxy, Graham) stand.
While this clarity renders a movie that is ultimately devoid of warm fuzzies, it is still a feel-good movie, at least if you know the One who loved us so much that He died for us, and gave us servants like Billy Graham to spread that good news.
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