Judge Clark Douglas prefers Canadian Jesus.
"What motorcycle would Jesus ride?"
Christianity has played a major role in America for centuries—the majority of the nation has always self-identified as Christian, though obviously the religion has a wide variety of permutations and denominations. Christianity has been losing its grip a bit in recent years, as folks have become more comfortable with the idea of agnosticism/atheism and church attendance has plummeted. Even so, the Christian religion still plays a major role in the lives of many Americans, and American Jesus aims to provide a sweeping snapshot of sorts. This 76-minute feature covers a great deal of territory in a short period of time, providing a film which is always compelling but rarely very deep.
We're certainly introduced to a colorful collection of characters over the course of our journey. We meet Christian pro wrestlers, Christian snake handlers, Christian activists, Christian bikers and many others throughout the film, giving us an experience which is more of a mosaic than a traditional documentary. There are moments which appear to be forming a narrative of sorts, particularly in the film's second half. We hear about the pivotal moment during the Reagan era when Christianity and conservative politics aligned in a startling way (particularly on the issue of abortion), and we're also given a look at modern Christianity's unusual relationship with Israel. Even so, the larger portrait is still a bit too muddy—by the end, the only larger message we see is that a lot of Christians are crazy (except the ones who aren't).
It's worth noting that the documentary at least manages to maintain some sense of balance and objectivity. A number of people featured seem like decent, well-meaning individuals who live out their faith in a way which genuinely makes the world a better place. Others are actually praying for a nuclear holocaust so we can all get to heaven sooner. There are so many interesting individuals here who might have formed the center of a deeper documentary, but American Jesus is more interested in delivering a surface-level overview. Maybe my religious upbringing has caused me to be a bit more aware of the stuff the doc examines, but I doubt many viewers are going to learn anything about modern Christianity they didn't already know. It's good, it's bad, it's ugly, and it's very diverse. There you have it. Still, the relative even-handedness is commendable.
American Jesus has received a solid standard-def transfer, though the film is mostly comprised of talking heads footage. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is perfectly adequate for this film's purposes, too. Supplements include a making-featurette and some deleted scenes (all of which are actually worth digging through).
The raw material presented in American Jesus is compelling, but it doesn't add up to much. As a more focused documentary (or better yet, a TV miniseries) it might have been essential viewing, but it's ultimately more of an intriguing curiosity.
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