Basic training: where egos go to die.
The whole concept of military basic training is to turn men and women into soldiers, to shape individuals into a cohesive unit. The process isn’t easy: Recruits are beaten down in order to be built up again.
But for some, the beating goes beyond the screaming drill sergeant and the 10-mile marches.
Chris Wright knows all about the Army. His father was a soldier. And though the elder Wright died in action, Chris would still like to follow in his dad’s waffle-print footsteps. So he and his best friend, Jason, decide to sign up. “I believe that this is what God wants me to do,” he tells his mom.
But when Chris joins the Army and follows what he believes is God’s call, he disappoints a couple of very important people. Lars, his mom’s new beau, had hoped Chris would work with him. “You could do so much more with your talents than just take orders, Chris,” he says.
And then there’s Beth, Jason’s sister and Chris’s girlfriend. Beth really wanted Chris to take Lars’ job offer. It meant more money, more security and a quicker start for their life together. When Chris tells her that he’s heading into the military instead, she’s not pleased. But God’s call is God’s call, right?
Anthony Mendoza receives a different sort of call: a call to get outta San Antonio before he gets arrested or killed—occupational hazards of dealing drugs. He’s had thugs hold guns to his head before. Maybe it’s time for him to hold one of his own.
The two recruits—Chris and Anthony—get sideways with each other right on the bus to basic. Anthony has no use for Chris or his God.
But sometimes people, like Army recruits, need to get beaten down a bit before God can built them back up again. Sometimes the strongest of faiths are forged in the hottest of fires.
And the fire? It’s coming for both of them.
The biblical adage “turn the other cheek” wouldn’t seem to apply much in the Army, given that soldiers are trained to, y’know, fight and kill and stuff. But while Chris takes his training seriously, he’s also really serious about showing the face of Christ to anyone who might have the eyes to see Him.
Anthony doesn’t like Chris much—and he makes it pretty clear. But Chris never rats Anthony out, never responds in anything but a kind and thoughtful manner. Even as Anthony rises to the position of platoon leader and makes Chris’s life just that much more difficult, Chris never complains, never seems to feel sorry for himself. Indeed, he sometimes wonders how he can help Anthony—especially help the guy find Jesus.
While Anthony has no interest in Chris’s Jesus or God at first, he does need help. And he has some good traits himself. Even in his dark drug-dealing days, he happily tips his waitressing sister a great deal of his (ill-gotten) cash. He seems to care for his Abuelita (grandmother) as well—despite her obvious disappointment in the man he’s becoming.
[Spoiler Warning] It takes a while for change to come to Anthony, but it does come. Increasingly convicted by Chris and Jason’s steadfast faith, tolerance and grace, the one-time drug dealer changes his ways, moving into a much better place emotionally and spiritually. He turns his back on his previous life, confesses a secret that sends his military career sideways and sincerely pushes closer to the person that God wants him to be—though it’s not without a setback or two.
The recruits are pushed primarily by two drill sergeants, and one of them—Drill Sgt. Jordan—seems to be a decent, fair man who wants the young men under his care to succeed. And when some of those men are being treated unfairly by the other instructor (Drill Sgt. Pano), he works to see justice done.
Anthony sidles up to Jason in the mess hall.
“Y’all are all weird,” Anthony says, referring to Jason and Chris.
“We are from Indiana,” Jason says.
But it’s not their home state that sets Jason and Chris apart: It’s their faith.
We see Chris’ spiritual commitment frequently. Bible verses hang on the walls of his room at home. And when he’s weighing whether to enlist or take Lars’ job off, his girlfriend, Beth, advises him to “pray about it.” (Beth’s father, by the way, is a pastor himself.) Chris doesn’t stop praying when he hits basic training, either. When he encounters a fellow recruit who seems to be having a hard time, he asks the guy, “Would you mind if I at least pray for you?” He thinks God may be pushing him to help Anthony, too, and says as much to his friend, Jason. Chris and Jason even pray while cleaning the bathrooms. He writes home and tells Beth, “I know this is what God wants me to do.”
Chris’ Christian faith doesn’t endear him to some, though, and he soon earns the nickname “Preacher Boy.”
Sgt. Pano might be the worst Christian bigot in the bunch. When he hears that Chris offered to pray with a fellow recruit, he scolds Chris. The point of Basic Training is to weed out the weak: “I don’t need you propping them up with your superstitions.” Later, he confesses to Jordan that “these Christians are really ticking me off,” even though Jordan is a Christian himself. He seems to have it out for Chris especially, mainly because of Chris’ faith. When someone seems to show some empathy for Chris, Pano disgustedly suggest the sympathetic recruit has been “brainwashed.” We learn that he’s had a rocky history with Christianity on account of his dad, who was both a deacon and a drunkard.
Anthony is pretty hostile toward Christianity as well—though, in fairness, he’s hostile toward a lot of things. He has reason to be bitter, too: He’s never gotten over the death of his little brother when Anthony himself was just a child, and he doesn’t quite understand how a loving God could do such a thing. He’s also deeply aware of his own sinfulness. “God hates me,” he says at one point, “and I’m OK with that.”
[Spoiler Warning] The change in Anthony we referenced earlier, though, comes down to God finding even Anthony. Jason compares God’s forgiveness to the Army’s “amnesty room,” where recruits deposit all their weapons, drugs and gambling paraphernalia before entering the army. “We all have dirt,” Jason tells him. “Jesus took care of that for us.” The scene ends in a prayer and Anthony eventually is baptized.
Chris goes through some difficult times—and one tragedy in particular drives him to sob in prayer as he accuses God. “How could You let this happen again?” He cries out.
Recruits go to chapel (many of them in part to avoid cleaning the barracks) and sing “Amazing Grace” (badly). The chaplain compares what the Army does with recruits to what Jesus does with people. “Now you have to allow the United States Army to change who you are from the inside,” the chaplain says, “Just like if you give your life to Christ, He will change your life from the inside.”
Crosses are seen on residential walls. People pray for one another. A funeral features a Christian pastor exhorting us to follow God. “Life is short, run it well,” the pastor says. “Each of us is here now for a reason, and what we do now matters for all eternity.” Anthony says that his Abuelita is a woman of deep faith.
As mentioned, Chris and Beth are an item. They hold hands and hug and go on dates and stuff, and they’re clearly planning on making a life together. Beth talks about how once Chris gets a job (presumably with Lars), they can talk to someone about “holding a house” for them—presumably for after they get married.
Anthony goads Jason about Beth (who is, you’ll recall, Jason’s sister). “Tell your sister to call me when she wants a real man,” he says.
We hear an Army chant, referencing how a soldier used to date a beauty queen. “Now I date my M-16,” the chant continues. In the amnesty room, Jason spies what might be some kind of adult magazine. We can’t see what the mag is, but he lifts it up and takes a peek—either at it or at what’s underneath.
Chris is subjected to a “blanket party,” where he’s gagged as someone else pounds his torso with an elbow. We see the painful-looking bruises afterward. Chris and Anthony are paired together for a basic training-sanctioned fight; the two of them punch and knee each other, and one gets the other in a choke hold before the tables are violently turned.
One recruit slugs another in the face. Other fights are referenced. Both Chris and Anthony frequently punch walls, and one of them seems to bloody his knuckles a bit. Anthony’s Abuelita hits him in the head with a shoe. Someone’s pushed over on a shooting range. Recruits wrestle each other, and they bayonet tires.
Anthony’s life back in San Antonio might’ve been more violent than what he’s seen in the military, though. In flashback, we see Anthony as a child watch as people drive by, point guns at the house he just left and pull their triggers. (We don’t see any blood, but we do see the look of horror on Anthony’s face and a spilled beer bottle. We learn that Anthony’s 4-year-old brother died in the attack.
As an adult, Anthony gets into a fight with a few drug buyers. Punches are exchanged, and someone takes a swing with a baseball bat. Anthony gets the worst of it—held by one of his assailants while another points a gun at his forehead.
In perhaps the movie’s most viscerally violent moment, someone is hit by a car and killed.
Anthony and his San Antonio friends drink a lot in the movie—often in a speeding car. Driver and passengers alike guzzle beer, and one spatters his face with the stuff as the car races along.
They also sell drugs—hiding little packets of white powder until the time comes to move the product. Anthony’s friend, Mikey, likely uses the stuff, too. He’s looking none too good one morning, and he sneaks off to where the powder baggies are kept—replacing at least one with a baggie stuffed with baking powder. When Anthony returns to San Antonio, Mikey and his other friend, Leo, try to make Anthony pick up those old habits again. (We hear that Anthony’s dad was involved in the drug business, too.)
Recruits drink liquor (against regulations), and Jason joins in—sipping alcohol for the first time. (Chris is furious with Jason for breaking the rules.) People drink beer on a porch.
The film is produced in part by Adult & Teen Challenge, faith-based organizations that help people break drug and alcohol addictions.
Anthony swipes a knife from the amnesty room as he enters basic training. When it seems as though his theft might be discovered, he plants the knife in someone else’s foot locker.
Anthony and his friends steal beer from a convenience store, then throw eggs at the owner as he tries to chase them down. The driver (who’s drinking beer) mentions that he just has a learner’s permit.
Anthony deals with a very smelly, flatulent dog while sleeping in someone else’s house. We hear a passing reference to contraband “gambling objects.”
Anthony admits that Chris and Jason feel, at times, a little familiar.
“They’re just like my Abuelita,” he tells someone. “It was always ‘Jesus this’ and ‘Jesus that.’”
Counter Column, like Anthony’s Abuelita, is all about Jesus, too—and how He can work His way into the most unforeseen and, sometimes, into the most forsaken places imaginable.
Though a Christian movie, Counter Column is grittier and rougher than many standard faith-based flicks. We see some convincing acts of violence and even tragedy. Drug-dealing—though certainly not condoned—is part of the movie’s plot. Characters wonder aloud—sometimes with tears on their faces, sometimes with rage in their hearts—where God can be in moments of tragedy. Why does God take the people we love? Why?
It’s a question that perhaps all Christians have asked, or will ask, at some point in their lives. This fallen world is filled with whys.
Counter Column acknowledges as such. And, I think to its credit, it doesn’t try to answer that deeply vexing question. Rather, it reminds us that God can work in even the darkest of times. And that He can use even tragedy to His advantage.
The film isn’t perfect, of course. No film is. While the cinematography is eye-catchingly creative at times, the overall production can show a constrained budget. The acting can be a bit uneven (though Chris Gonzales as Anthony is, frankly, dynamite).
But in spite of some of its limitations, Counter Column shines as an illustration of God at work—healing the hurting, redeeming the rejects, making something beautiful out of our sometimes-ugly lives. That’s a good reminder to all of us—and like Anthony’s Abuelita shouting Jesus this and Jesus that, it’s always good to hear.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.