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Movie Review

Applaud it? Condemn it? Among evangelicals who have seen The Apostle (PG-13), there seem to be two camps. For supporters, it is a cautionary tale--a modern, no holds barred, big-screen parallel to the life of David complete with its own Bathsheba and Uriah. To detractors, it's more like watching a replay of the tabloid-ready church scandals of the 1980s.

The critically acclaimed Apostle follows the faith and failings of Euliss "Sonny" Dewey (Robert Duvall), a charismatic southern preacher. Unlike a number of recent films that portray ministers--or Christians in general--as hypocritical scheisters, Sonny is presented differently. He's weak. He's imperfect. But he's not a self-righteous con man. Instead, he genuinely loves God and cares about people. Even when out of the limelight, he spends time praying and leading others to Christ. But his flaws are glaring. As USA Today points out, "Sonny is destroyed by his frailties but redeemed by his faith and ability to inspire devotion."

Are those "frailties" so predominant that the message gets lost? It's a tough call. Historically, God has taken greater delight in the message than the imperfections or flawed motives of the messenger. Speaking to the church in Philippi (1:15), the Apostle Paul noted that some "men of God" preached "Christ out of envy and rivalry." "What does it matter?," Paul concludes, "the important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached."

Without question, "Christ is preached." One early scene shows Duvall's character happening upon a traffic accident. Concerned that one of the victims may be near death, he privately shares the Gospel before the paramedics arrive. Yes, the Gospel. Not some mumbo-jumbo about "good" people going to heaven. When the man manages a faint acknowledgment that he has asked Jesus into his heart, Dewey lets the police take over, gets back in his car and excitedly exclaims, "We made news in heaven." And he really believes it.

But Sonny Dewey is certainly no Billy Graham. He's prone to violence. He also hits the bottle. When he discovers his wife (played by Farrah Fawcett) is having an affair with the church youth pastor, a drunken Dewey yanks her around by the hair and takes after her lover, clubbing him with a single swing of a baseball bat. The man dies and Dewey, who apparently didn't mean to kill him, skips town to avoid jail.

Winding up in a small Louisiana bayou community, Dewey changes his name to Apostle E.F. and sets out to pioneer a Pentecostal church. Everyone's welcome at The One Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple, where shouting, dancing and pounding a tambourine energize the worship. Yet, while that vivacity draws the townsfolk, it's Dewey's acts of love that keep them coming back. He distributes food to the poor. He mediates between bickering congregants. At one point, he calms an angry racist who's intent on bulldozing his church and wins him to Christ. Of course, the man's hostile use of heavy machinery is motivated by a fist fight he'd had with the preacher earlier. Like I said . . . flawed.

Is "Christ being preached," or should parents keep Sonny Dewey from speaking to young viewers? Will the unchurched get a bad taste in their mouths about Christianity, or be drawn to Christ? Maybe all of the above. But for some Christian families, The Apostle offers something rarely found in mainstream motion pictures: a springboard for discussions of faith, sin and forgiveness.

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Robert Duvall as Euliss "Sonny" Dewey, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton, June Carter Cash, Miranda Richardson


Robert Duvall ( )


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