'Courageous': A Higher Standard for Films and Fathers


Fatherhood as an institution rarely finds itself compared with the door-smashing, criminal-tackling, bullet-biting heroics of law enforcement. But for the Kendrick brothers of Sherwood Pictures, this analogy holds tremendous power. It poses an arsenal of questions to those who are willing to settle for “good enough” in fatherhood, and arrests the consciences of any who wonder whether they play the hero in their child’s world. Alex and Stephen Kendrick embrace these challenges, and in their latest movie, Courageous, use them to confront fathers everywhere, and propel a screenplay straight to the heart of our culture’s worst problem.

After Fireproof (the previous Sherwood film) incinerated low expectations for husbands with the maxim, “Never leave your partner,” Courageous nudges the bar still higher for men in their role as fathers. Trailing four Albany, Georgia, police officers as they grapple with gangs and drugs, this film brings home the reality that fathers, like those in uniform, have a duty to serve and protect—and that their failure to do so destroys lives.

The Story

In the course of a day’s work, officers Adam Mitchell, Daniel Thompson, Nathan Hayes, and Shane Fuller confront the worst their small town has to offer. Carjacking, gang violence, drug-running and gunfights bombard their rounds from nine to five. Consecrating themselves behind a badge to safeguard the general public and giving 100 percent on the job, each nonetheless finds himself clocking out to lackluster fatherhood. A divorcé who rarely sees his son, two fathers losing touch with their teenagers, and an unmarried rookie who ran away from becoming a dad, the group shares little enthusiasm for confronting their shortcomings at home.

But when tragedy collides with Adam Mitchell’s family, it forces the four to reckon with the reality of their failure as fathers. And while they take stock of the price paid by children whose fathers fall short, the four also come to realize just how closely their roles in their families are linked to their roles fighting crime.

“Do you really feel like it messed up your childhood not having a dad?” asks Thompson (played by Ben Davies).

“More than you know,” replies Hayes (played by Ken Bevel). “I struggled with who I was . . . trying to prove myself. You know, if fathers just did what they were supposed to do, half of the junk we face on the streets wouldn’t exist.”

The filmmakers hardly shy from displaying the reality of Hayes’s allegation. In a chilling initiation scene early in the film, a young man allows his fellow gang members to kick him senseless before joining them in an embrace and calling his tormenters “family.”

For Adam Mitchell’s household, the loss of their youngest daughter, whom Mitchell long favored over his teenage son, provides a no less vivid illustration. But as he excavates Scripture and seeks the council of his pastor, Mitchell becomes aware not only of his deficiency as a father, but of a solution he never imagined.

The Resolution

“I don’t want to be a good enough father,” Mitchell tells his coworkers as he prepares to unveil his proposal for change. “We have a few short years to influence our kids. Whatever patterns we set for them will likely be used for their kids and the generation after that. We have the responsibility to mold a life, and I don’t think that should be done casually.”

At this, the turning point of the film, Mitchell offers his fellow officers and fathers an opportunity to leave behind adequacy for excellence. He presents what he calls “The Resolution,” a commitment to become a father who lives by twelve biblical standards and holds others accountable to them. Hayes doesn’t hesitate to sign on, and together with Mitchell, inspires his two fellows with an eagerness to be the hero at home each of them has always been on the job.

“I’ve been doing about half of what I should have been doing as a dad,” confesses Mitchell. The others, now bound together in his Resolution, set out to follow his example and embark on a new kind of fatherhood -- one in which they pledge never again to settle for “good enough.”

At the conclusion of the film (after a stunning climactic sequence), we watch as three changed characters stand before a congregation and call men on both sides of the screen to surrender mediocre fatherhood and become the heroes their families desperately need.

As with their last film, the Kendrick Brothers and Sherwood have produced merchandise for Courageous, including a plaque identical to those in the film displaying the twelve standards of biblical fatherhood. I plan to get my hands on one of these (for future reference). Click this link and enlarge the photo to see the plaque and read the Resolution for yourself.

The Film

Courageous represents an expected and welcome leap forward for Sherwood as an entertainment company. Much like Fireproof, this film saw striking improvements in cinematography, acting, and scripting over its forerunner. And while the last Kendrick film managed to sideline some of the aggravating production shortfalls and “corniness” which distracted from the messages of previous movies, Sherwood can claim this time to have produced a work of art that sharpens rather than blunts their message, and pierces audiences’ hearts more successfully than ever.

Two strengths set Courageous above the rest of the lineup this fall, and both deserve a plug.

First, this movie works on audiences’ emotions magnificently. In all the years I have forked over exorbitant ticket prices to watch (and help finance) $100-million+ Hollywood productions, I have seldom experienced the depth of empathy and emotional involvement I did during this small-budget church-sponsored film. To draw uproarious laughter and reduce the same theater to tears within the space of two minutes is an achievement any director could take pride in. The Kendrick brothers and Courageous pulled this off several times.

Moreover, this title manages to largely avoid the cardinal sin of Christian films: sermonizing. Although the message of the movie hits audiences with blatant force, it arrives in style, relying more on demonstration than pontification. Of course, the Kendrick Brothers retain the obligatory “altar call” moment for one of their main characters. But they pull this off tastefully, and tie it back into the story with few loose seams.

Like all entertainment, Courageous falls short in some areas. Despite improved performances, at least two of the main characters suffer from a lack of believability. And although this film avoids the cringe-inducing moments which overshadow emotional scenes in earlier Sherwood productions, some of the cast members regularly remind us that they are acting.

The plot as well, while compelling overall, suffers from a palpable lull after the Resolution ceremony, during which audiences are left expecting the closing scene and early credits. But despite this short meander through the wilderness, the story resuscitates itself for a much grander (and more satisfying) finale.

One’s first impression of a film the moment the credits roll is often the most accurate. And at the close of Courageous, my distinct impression was that I had just witnessed an attack on the heart of our culture’s ugliest problem. In equating the courage of police officers with vital attributes of fatherhood, the Kendrick brothers delivered a more subtle and sobering message to dads: if you fail, law-enforcement may become more than a metaphor in your kids’ lives.

This of course, goes to the heart of Chuck Colson’s vision for founding BreakPoint in 1991. As he often explains to critics, worldview teaching -- including a robust defense of biblical fatherhood -- is the only vaccine for the disease that Prison Fellowship and ministries like it exist to treat.

“Going into the prisons all those years, I saw that the crime problem wasn’t caused by poverty and environment,” says Chuck. “It was the breakup of the family, the lack of moral training during the morally formative years. Those things cause crime.”

For theatergoers this fall, the truth of this statement will evince itself more clearly than ever as the Kendrick brother’s analogy draws new attention to an old standard. Should our culture take more seriously the duties of fathers to serve and protect those who depend on them, perhaps there may come a day when comparing dads with society’s greatest heroes seems completely natural. After all, shouldn’t fathers be the courageous ones?

G. Shane Morris is Web manager for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.

Image copyright TriStar Pictures.

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