Judge Patrick Bromley didn't know Gary Cooper was gay until he saw this documentary.
"God hates homosexuals, and so do Christians."
Watching First Run Features' new release of the 1993 documentary One Nation Under God, I was reminded of a sketch on the brilliant Mr. Show with Bob and David: David Cross plays a member of a religious organization designed to "reform" homosexuals into heterosexuals. The trouble is, he keeps suffering "lapses" back into homosexuality, even going so far as to talk about lapses he plans on having in the future (as a side note, indie-teen movies But I'm a Cheerleader and Saved! deal with similar subject matter). The sketch turns out to be not so much funny as bitingly accurate—men and women exactly like the one Cross is playing are found all throughout One Nation Under God.
Take Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper (no, not that Gary Cooper; this Gary Cooper passed away shortly after the film's release), for example. Both men are "ex-gays," working as spokespeople and recruiters for Exodus International, an organization committed to converting gay men and women into a heterosexual lifestyle. After months of working and traveling together, the two inevitably realize that they are, in fact, in love with one another—that their supposed conversion was nothing more than a repression and denial of their true selves. The two ultimately leave the families they had started during their "straight" lives (though the film does point out that both still spend a great deal of time with their children and are, by all accounts, good fathers) and marry—in the civil ceremony sense, anyway (we all know gay people can't really get married). These two men were long touted by Exodus International as success stories—proof that their methods work—but directors Teodoro Maniaci and Francine Rzeznik use them to prove an altogether different point: homosexuality can not be reversed. It is not a choice.
One Nation Under God claims to present both sides of this issue, contrasting comments from interview subjects like Bussee and Cooper with people like Sy Rogers, a slightly unconvincing straight man and the current (or, at least, current in 1993) president of Exodus International. Though there is an obvious bias (more on that later) to the documentary, how you ultimately read the film may depend on your own position on the subject; personally, I found the whole concept of reforming—in the words of Sy Rogers—this "sexual brokenness" absurd to the point of comedy, but that's probably because I possess traits of logic and rationality. If you are not disturbed by archival film footage included—which, despite having been made within the last 40 years, utterly demonizes homosexuality—well, let's just say you might not find the argument as incomprehensible as I did.
The documentary itself is not even particularly well made; it only captivates the way that it does because of its subject matter, aspects of which, thanks to some recent legal battles, seem more relevant today than ever before. Yet it's directly because of the controversial nature of the topic that I almost wish the filmmakers had explored it with more depth—the finished product is a bit simplistic in its approach, with the "reformers" coming off a bit too clownish (though one could argue—and probably win—that they basically see to that themselves). The film clearly sides with the homosexual community—while it never suggests that any religious affiliation other than those groups mentioned practice this kind of bigotry and hatred, it never goes out of its way to point out that they don't. The omission gradually gives way to a kind of blanket generalization of organized religion, as demonstrated by the quote above; while the film isn't talking about all Christians, there's no denying that it's that quote that sticks with you—it haunts you even after the film has ended.
First Run Features' release of One Nation Under God may be worth checking out for the film, but their disc is a tremendous letdown. It features one of the least impressive video transfers I've seen—there's zero definition, a great number of source defects (though much of the film was shot on video, which has not weathered well), and constant skipping, stuttering, and destabilization of the image. The audio track, while presenting the dialogue pretty clearly, is a bit of a mess, too—crackling and popping can be heard throughout the film. The only special features included on this lackluster disc are some bonus trailers for other First Run releases.
Though One Nation Under God comes close to succeeding, it falls short as both a film and a documentary in the end. It has its merits—not only does it provide a compelling look into a little-known movement, but also traces some of the roots of American homophobia and exclusion. At the same time, however, it does little more than reinforce what you might already believe; the opposing views are so polarized that there can be no in-between. While there's certainly no film that's going to convince me that homosexuality is wrong or needs "correcting," I wouldn't mind seeing a film that's a bit smarter, or raises better questions, or presents an opposing side that's less fanatical or more widely identifiable. After all, a much larger population is going to need their views challenged before we can come around as a society and make some significant changes. The late Gary Cooper and his husband deserve that much.
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