In a world where serious books sell poorly and newsmagazines are a shadow of their former selves – if they’re published at all – the documentary film has taken up much of the burden of bringing topical issues and debate in front of the public. While feature films have stagnated, pooling into either numbing blockbusters or a host of increasingly spiritless genres, documentary production has undergone a renaissance, either in rep theatres or film festivals or on cable television.
Which is a shame, because an hour-long TV show, a 90-minute feature film or even a multi-part documentary series can’t hope to explore ideas and issues with the depth of a well-written book, and debate is mostly crippled thanks to the passive attitude incumbent upon viewers, as opposed to readers – which is why my heart sinks whenever I see yet another topic pregnant with possibility undergoing a documentary film treatment, which in these post-Michael Moore days usually means anything from mild to overt bias top-loaded from the minute the titles roll.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think the world needs a good feature-length documentary about hell, but I’m afraid that Kevin Miller’s Hellbound? probably isn’t it. There are a lot of reasons, including first-time director Miller’s reliance on a single music cue – an ominous piano figure playing over a faintly keening drone – to tell us whenever he thinks somebody is right. And then there’s the copious screen time he gives to the Westboro Baptist Church, deputized to embody everything Miller’s film considers harmful and sinister and wrong.
Not that this is a challenge for the Westboro Baptist Church crowd – those people who’ve decided that their form of missionary outreach involves picketing the funerals of soldiers and celebrities holding a variety of signs varying only notionally from their trademark message: “God Hates Fags.” This is the group – one hesitates to call it a church, though the U.S government still affords it tax-exempt status – that even the Ku Klux Klan calls “hatemongers.”
Westboro have taken up residence in a prominent spot in the liberal imagination, showing up in movies and TV shows whenever the spectre of Christian intolerance needs to cast a long shadow; this tiny group, comprising little more than pastor Fred Phelps and his extended family, has become one of the bogeymen resident in red state, Republican America. (Ironic, considering that Phelps has run for office in Kansas several times as a Democrat, and that Phelps and Westboro were supporters of Al Gore’s 1988 presidential primary bid. Facts that, strangely enough, never seem to intrude on most media depictions of Westboro, and appear nowhere in Miller’s film.)
For the purposes of Hellbound?, Westboro are meant to be the ultimate proponents of Annihilationism, the position that holds that hell exists and that it will be filled by a stern and judgmental God. Miller opposes it unfavorably with Universalism, which holds that if there is a hell, God’s mercy is infinite, and anyone can escape the inferno – an interpretation that’s explained by a host of writers, clerics, ex-clerics and theologians with soothing voices and appealing wit that’s meant to contrast harshly with the rebarbative rhetoric of the “hell is for everyone” crowd.
In the film’s cosmology, Westboro are simply the most extreme elements of the Evangelical movement whose rhetorical embrace of a hell filled to bursting doesn’t harmonize with what more rational minds know about biblical history, and the finer points of translation from the original languages of the book. The argument is stacked hugely in the Universalist’s favour, which frankly isn’t hard to do since, to everyone but the belligerent zealots of Westboro, it’s far more appealing to the average person.
Hellbound? wouldn’t be so irritating if it just stuck to its earnest but unsurprising message, but it overreaches when it extends its criticism of evangelicals and the notion of a hungry hell to making parallels to terrorism and even support for the state of Israel. It’s a quick lunge, but the inference is unmistakeable, with both the invasion of Iraq and Israel’s defense of its borders being compared to the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 planes. Miller is playing to the gallery here, like a politician making a jokey aside that’s meant to flatter their audience, and it’s both despicable and dishonest.
You’d presume that someone wanting to talk about the idea of hell wouldn’t set out to alienate that part of his audience who clearly take the notion seriously, but that seems to have been overlooked by Miller, who seems ultimately much less interested in debate than reinforcing comfortable liberal stereotypes. The New York Times called Hellbound? “substantive and even-handed,” which should serve as a warning more than praise.
It’s doubly disappointing for me, since Miller was a writer on Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the 2008 documentary featuring Ben Stein making a brave defense of Intelligent Design in the service of free speech and academic inquiry. I thought Expelled was a thoroughly refreshing and worthwhile exploration of its subject, less because of its defense of I.D. (in which I have, admittedly, little interest) than for its willingness to dignify the debate over its validity, and the people who want to take part in that debate.
Hellbound?, alas, is just another sucker punch of a documentary, which begins with a hot topic button and ends with a gentle but firm dismissal of those people most passionately engaged with the topic. Even for someone, like myself, whose sympathy is more firmly in the Universalist camp, it’s hard not to watch the credits roll without feeling like your side has won a rigged game.