"I always saw myself as a patriot," proclaims decorated Vietnam War veteran Bob Revere. "I don't remember anyone telling me freedom had to be fought for and defended. I love my country. And I love being free."
Bob's commitment to those convictions is soon tested when his son, Thomas, heads off to war in Iraq … and doesn't come home. Despite Bob's prayers for his son's safety, 20-year-old Thomas is killed in action, leaving behind his young, pregnant bride, Kari. Bob's final words to his son? "I told him to defend our freedoms with his last ounce of courage."
Fast-forward 14 years. Kari and her now teenage son, Christian, move back to Mt. Columbus from California to live with Bob and his wife, Dottie. Bob's traded in his biker leathers for a pharmacist's jacket and the mayor's hat. But despite that success, grief, bitterness and regret over Thomas' untimely death still gnaw at him.
Self-preoccupation gets punctured when Christian gets reprimanded by his junior high school principal … for bringing his dad's Gideon Bible to school. The principal tries to explain how Christian's actions were "detrimental to the student body." Besides, he adds, "We don't want any trouble." In other words, he doesn't want anyone to sue the school for a perceived crossing of the church-state dividing line.
It's an unsettling incident for Bob. But it takes a providential commentary by Bill O'Reilly on TV one night to fully reawaken his convictions about the importance of freedom. O'Reilly's rant about retail outlets replacing references to Christmas with the word "holidays" prompts Christian to ask, seemingly out of the blue, "What did my dad die for?"
"What are we doing?" Christian asks. "What are you doing?"
Bob begins to wonder the same thing. His conclusion: not enough. His plan to honor his son's sacrifice: using his position as mayor to renew his town's focus on the real reason for the season.
But even as the Christmas tree goes up in front of city hall, critics line up to pull it—and Bob—back down. A local television reporter seems determined to cast Bob in the worst possible light. And more ominously, a fearsome legal pit bull from Washington, D.C., named Warren "The Hammer" Hammerschmidt shows up spewing threats and spitting innuendo regarding the legal damage he can do to Bob and his town.
Bob is deeply committed to one of the fundamental freedoms that America was founded upon: freedom of religion. He talks about the importance of Christians being able to express their convictions openly without fear of reprisal. And he points out that people of other religious traditions—he mentions Muslims and Jews—should be similarly free to erect symbols of their faith in public spaces. Thus, he sets out to stimulate, by way of symbol and speech, a Christmas renewal effort. [Spoiler Warning] He also singlehandedly, in an act of civil disobedience designed to make a strong spiritual point, reinstalls a "Jesus Saves" cross on the side wall of a downtown mission.
Facing stiff resistance, and ultimately dismissal from his role as mayor, Bob's actions and reactions are depicted as a noble, heroic effort that's soundly grounded in legal and historical precedent. We're "losing freedoms that people died for," he says. "We're asleep. Wake up! We can't sleep anymore."
Bob's renewed zeal proves to be a catalyst for a similar embrace of religious expression by Christian and his group of junior high friends. One of them, Maddie, is especially fed up with the secularization of everything, and she spearheads an effort to replace a silly, alien-oriented storyline in the school's "winter play" with a retelling of the story of Christ's birth. (Their methods need some fine-tuning, morally, but their hearts are in the right place. More on that a bit later.)
Many of the film's references to faith are closely tied to the idea of fighting for America's freedom. So Bob's American flag has a cross affixed to the top of the pole. And his efforts largely revolve around the public placement of symbolic representations of Christ, Christianity and the Christmas story—whether it's crosses, Christmas trees with angels hanging on them, party invitations that boast a "Merry Christmas" greeting or wooden sheep he works on in his shop for a nativity display. He wonders aloud why the presence of these symbols is so offensive, why "the mere mention of Jesus rubs people the wrong way."
Hammerschmidt's villainy is illustrated by his eagerness to yank down the town's Christmas tree. And when he gets the chance to follow through on his plan, he stomps on an angel ornament that had been perched at the top.
Kari cherishes a cross given to her by her late husband, and she's often seen wearing it. Similarly, Christian reveres his father's Gideon Bible. In a letter to his wife, we hear Thomas say, "God's been watching over me. One hundred eighty one days I'll be home, Lord willing." There's talk of praying for troops putting their lives on the line.
[Spoiler Warning] An angel appears to Bob while he's in jail, miraculously letting him listen in on his grandson's play at school.
Patches on Bob's "Hellfighters" motorcycle jacket include one that says "Jesus Saves" and another that features "666" in a circle with a line through it. He runs into a gang of Christian bikers who have similar patches on their jackets; one of them reads "Satan Sucks."
Kari and Thomas kiss. Fourteen years after Thomas' death, Kari and Maddie's dad, Greg, strike up a romance, and we see them kiss too. Passing reference is made to Kari's father having left her mother for another woman.
Thomas and his fellow soldiers are shown navigating tense urban combat environments and firing at (unseen) enemies. Later, Christian shows his father's last video to the group gathered for the school play. In it, Thomas is hunkered down in the middle of a battle, and we can hear mortars and explosions in the distance. At the end of the video, an explosion kills him, and the camera shows his body on the concrete with a bleeding wound to the head.
Another combat scene involves a flashback to Bob's time in Vietnam, specifically his memories of a POW rescue attempt that went tragically awry (which he narrates to his wife). Most of those with Bob's unit were killed, and we see him cradling a soldier suffering from head and neck wounds.
A member of the Christian biker gang seeks Bob's help after accidentally shooting himself in the torso. (We see a bloodstain on his shirt.)
Crude or Profane Language
"Heck" is as harsh as things get. Name-calling includes two instances of "stupid" and one of "moron."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several brief scenes picture the Christian bikers in a bar where a large Corona beer sign is visible. Hammerschmidt smokes cigars.
Other Negative Elements
Maddie's (comedic) takeover of the school play in the name of Jesus is depicted positively, but it nevertheless involves her and her friends deceiving their teacher and, during the show, locking him in a closet. (It's a scheme that requires the help of the school's janitor.)
In an interview with the Catholic News Agency, Last Ounce of Courage screenwriter and co-director Darrel Campbell summed up what he hoped to accomplish with this film by saying, "I believe in this country, I believe in the people, I believe in freedom, I believe in my church, my religion, my faith. This country is based on faith, family and freedom, and that's what the movie is about. … It is very rare for faith-based film to be about our country and our people. This is really a movie about all of us."
Campbell's motivation for writing the story—which is very similar to Bob's onscreen motivation for bringing Christmas back to Mt. Columbus—was triggered by real-life stories of heroism in his own family. His father and uncle fought in World War II, with the latter paying the ultimate price. Set against the backdrop of American soldiers' courageous sacrifice to preserve our way of life, Campbell hopes the film will be a catalyst for renewed conversation revolving around the question, "What can I do to make sure their sacrifice is not in vain?"
Many viewers will no doubt feel a renewed sense of the cost of freedom, as well as the importance of not taking our religious liberties in America for granted. The film will also serve as a guaranteed conversation starter regarding how we as Christians should best defend our ideals and convictions in the public square.
To that point, Bob's onscreen approach is aggressive and confrontational. And to tell his story, the film employs melodrama and hyperbole as it links Christianity and patriotic themes—so much so that they overlap almost completely at times. (There's a scene near the end in which Christian walks onstage during the school play and plants an American flag near Jesus' manger.)
Sincere and conscientious Christians will reach different conclusions about what that kind of storytelling accomplishes, and how well it explores the relationship between our spiritual convictions and our political ones. But nobody will miss the point that we remove God from our public places at our peril.