Here’s the good news: the worst movie of 2012 is now over and done with. Here’s the bad news: that it was ever made in the first place. By RICHARD POPLAK
Africa is a continent of almost a billion people, most of whom are waiting to be saved. This axiom fuels Machine Gun Preacher, a new film directed by a Hollywood-by-way-of-Basel hack named Marc Forster. Forster’s movies tend to coagulate into a mulch of overblown action and Euro pretension, and those are just the good parts. Unjustly praised for the Halle Berry Oscar-baiter Monster’s Ball (he fetishizes the American lower class once again in his latest), he was properly pilloried for the Kite Runner and the unwatchable Bond sequel Quantum of Solace. By comparison, his latest makes the rest of his oeuvre look like Stanley Kubrick’s.
Machine Gun Preacher, a terrible film by almost any standard, qualifies as a disappointment only because there is a story worth telling among all the bwana worship, poorly acted fulminations and shaky-cam shoot-‘em-ups. Gerard Butler, who should get his SAG card revoked for his Philly accent alone, plays the real life Sam Childers, a thug-turned-preacher who found God, and then redemption, in southern Sudan and Uganda. His ex-stripper wife (played by Michelle Monaghan, who looks more like a middle-period Michael Jackson everyday) turns him on to Jesus, and he finds his purpose in a heavily armed squabble with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a messianic Christian militia that is less rebel force than murderous scourge.
Loosely based on Childers’ memoir Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle to Save Children in the Sudan, Forster’s telling – written by Jason Keller –descends into a badly shot action film when it should have been a fascinating moral study. The real Sam Childers, all handlebar moustache and biker tattoos, is a massively complicated figure. “Save the children, at any cost,” is his mantra, but the fact that he enjoys saving them so much suggests another, less salutary motive: the man loves AK-47s, and the shooting thereof. God and the gun; salvation through cluster bombs – that’s the Childers way. His biography invites two questions: Is redemption possible through violence? And when all is chaos, is the best sermon not preached through the barrel of a gun?
“Childers is like a myth in Africa,” suggested a breathless NBC news profile, as if Africa’s billion-strong population is constantly SMS-ing Childers sightings to relatives in Sierra Leone and Burundi. Rather, Childers is a mythical figure in America. He conforms to a long line of Western rogues who have gone to the Dark Continent in order to mete out justice and the Word of the Lord as they see fit, free from the constraints that would keep them from firing RPG rockets in, say, Oakland, or New Haven.
This means of engaging with Africa stretches from NBC news writers all the way up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who still chides African leaders as if they were little children. Childers’ own words provides an idiot précis of American foreign policy, roughly incorporating manifest destiny and religious posturing into a gestalt that is both charmingly naïve and utterly insane:
When I first started driving around in Southern Sudan, my soldiers and I got ambushed all the time. To any normal person that would be a bad thing, but I thought it was great. I went around hoping the LRA would ambush us because every time they did, it gave me a chance to take another one of them out – leaving one less LRA soldier to hurt someone else. [N]egotiating is a waste of time. But when you go out and kill the enemy, you’re making progress. You’re speaking the LRA’s language, and suddenly you’ve got their attention. Less talking and more shooting would bring this whole conflict to an end a lot sooner and save who knows how many lives.
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But what, one wonders, does Childers mean by the LRA’s “language”? The LRA have lasted so long precisely because they have no “language” – they are a nightmare expression of Acholi rage and impotence. (The Acholi are an ethnic group traditionally sidelined in the Ugandan and Sudanese power matrix.) Led by self-styled messiah Joseph Kony, who encourages his troops to oil crosses on their chests to ward off bullets, LRA soldiers are not the faceless darkies that Childers, or Forster for that matter, imagines them to be. They are often children pressed into service, Acholi nationalists bitterly opposed to the Museveni regime in Uganda, or religious fanatics who would find much in common with Childers and his own millenarian outlook. They take their orders from God, channelled through Kony, who – when it comes right down to it – isn’t that different from his American nemesis in terms of psychological makeup.
This isn’t moral relativism – Childers hasn’t killed as many people in his life as Kony manages to do in an afternoon. Yet the corollaries are stark enough for even Forster and his screenwriter to grasp, through the character of a pissy Doctors Without Borders type, who lectures Childers against the use of violence. (Don’t worry – she gets what’s coming to her.) Both Kony and Childers have an open line with the Almighty, and an unlimited minutes talking plan. In Another Man’s War, God gets the best dialogue, mostly because He is constantly yakking. He tells Childers when to fire the .30 calibre machine gun; He warns him of looming trouble. God gives the orders, and Childers follows.
Which brings to mind not only Joseph Kony, but also his religious mentor, an Acholi woman named Alice Auma. In the late 1980s, she found wide support with her Holy Spirit Movement (HSM), a religious army cum opposition group. Auma spoke in tongues and fell into deep trances; God communicated to her via a dead Italian soldier known as Lakwena, or “messenger.” The movement was a nationalist enterprise, meant to redeem the Acholi and send them to Kampala to rule as a theocracy. When HSM disintegrated, the LRA emerged as a surprisingly durable splinter group. Subsequently, they have killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.
Joseph Kony has played the foil for Westerners before, most notably in Jane Bussmann’s The Worst Date Ever: War Crimes, Hollywood Heart-throbs and other Abominations. Bussmann, a UK comedian-turned-war reporter (thankfully a small cohort) chased an NGO crush all the way to Uganda, where she got a nasty taste of Kony’s legacy. She noted that the refugee camps were more depressing than the time she found a boyfriend “wanking and crying at the same time,” and declared, after visiting a refugee camp where sex is routinely traded for food, “that all the world’s aid had come down to a porridge fuck.” Sarah Silverman in khaki, Bussmann paints a vivid picture of LRA brutality, even if she fails to fully complicate the narrative.
Why, one wonders, did Forster not complicate Childers’ narrative? The answer can only be that he, like most Westerners, simply can’t conceive of a complicated Africa. We don’t go to Hollywood films for deep historical insight and nuanced dissections of geopolitical sideshows like the LRA. But Forster has stubbornly ignored everything that makes Childers fascinating, not least of which is the fact that he represents Western impotence on the continent, and our inability to view Africa as anything but a receptacle for charity, and therefore a vector for redemption.
“Has Bush been Africa’s best friend?” asked the BBC on the eve of Obama’s inauguration. The famously born again George W. pumped tens of billions of dollars of aid into the continent, with programs like the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, or Pepfar. Perhaps turned off by the distinct Christian undertones motivating these endeavours (Retrovirals? Yes. Condoms? No), and certainly influenced by the fact that his country is broke, Obama has backed away from signature programs of this sort. A cynic would note that all the aid in the world has come down to a porridge fuck. A religious-minded person would acknowledge that charity has qualities that can’t be quantified by Washington bean counters or jaded comedian/reporters.
Childers exemplifies the latter impulse. In his African adventures, he acts in a bubble far removed from geopolitical realities, mostly because he doesn’t grasp the complexities of the region. His effect on all but a few lives is a net negative, because he inadvertently acts as a destabilising factor. What’s more, his presence as leader of a mercenary army in a lawless land is confirmation of the fact that the LRA is nowhere near dissolution – if the region can support one gang of armed nutjobs, it can support one hundred. Childers undermines his cause simply by waking up in the morning. Bible in one hand and AK in the other – this is a summary of how Childers, and of course how the West, has encountered the continent for centuries.
Forster isn’t interested in tackling any of this. Every time a rapturous black orphan stares up at Butler-as-Childers with lucent eyes, Childers’ mission – and therefore the entire history of Western engagement on the continent – is confirmed as righteous. It’s 2012, and we’re still telling stories about how God-like big bwana is. (Forster’s next film is a zombie action thriller starring Brad Pitt. Let’s hope he imbues the undead with more personality and nuance than he has the black characters in Machine Gun Preacher.) As a particularly beatific orphan tells Childers: “If we lose heart, they have won.” If by “heart” he means “AK-47,” then Machine Gun Preacher has it dead on. DM
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.