Goddamn it, I wanted to like this religious movie. I’ve loved James Remar since “Dexter,” had a soft spot for Fred Thompson as the D.A. on “Law & Order” and was hooked by the trailer. Plus, thrillers are my favorite genre.
I knew members of the religious right made “Persecuted,” and it was a safe bet that a far-leaning leftie like me probably wouldn’t agree with the end message, but I was still looking forward to the action and suspense.
On Friday, I attended the film’s world premiere in New York City. Though Remar was absent, writer, director and producer Daniel Lusko was in attendance, as were some other members of the cast. It was fun chatting with some of them, including Thompson, with whom I had a fun repartee. “Wow,” I said, “You’re really tall.” “No,” he replied. “You’re really small.” When I laughed, he offered the consolation, “Small is better for airplane seats.”
Everyone headed downstairs to the screening, and imagine my surprise when I found myself caught in a tsunami of boredom. I spiraled down into the pits of movie hell. This was not a thrilling thriller. It wasn’t even entertaining — it was pure religious right propaganda. The heavy-handed, wooden dialogue was worthy of a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
The saintly protagonist (Remar) is an evangelical minister named John Luther (a moniker of two combined names; one pulled right from the Bible, while the other is the Luther of Lutheranism). You could almost see a halo hovering over the hero’s head, and he might as well have been walking around nailed to a cross. Poor, pure Luther comes up against the sinister dark forces of the U.S. government as represented by Senate Majority Leader Donald Harrison (Bruce Davison) and a cartoonish white-haired corrupt president who speaks in Clinton-ese (James R. Higgins). Both pressure Luther to promote a legislative bill called the “Faith and Fairness Act.”
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Unfortunately, writer Lusko never made it clear what the bill was exactly. The implication is that it’s a religious-reform bill that will undermine Christians. It’s difficult to think of them as persecuted. Christians make up 75 percent of the U.S., but the evildoers in “Persecuted” want to take away Christians’ rights, so the Christians fear they will no longer be able to act as God’s mouthpiece. Doesn’t the government know that the only true believers in God are Christian? How dare they say otherwise?
The cast is made up of mostly real-life conservatives. Thompson is a former Republican senator, Brad Stine is a well-known Christian comedian, and Fox News’ Gretchen Carlson plays a TV reporter. The timing of the movie’s release is noteworthy in light of the opposition to the Hobby Lobby.
On the red carpet, I talked to Higgins, a fiscal conservative, who comes across as very likable. “Our whole government is going to crumble if we don’t change the way we do things and follow the Constitution,” he said. I asked Higgins what he meant specifically by that, and he said, “The right to carry arms.”
Now’s a good time to mention that, in the movie, the mean senator frames Luther for murdering a prostitute in response to Luther’s refusal to promote the bill. Luther becomes a wanted man with his face all over the media. He puts together a brilliant disguise — dark sunglasses and a hoodie. You know, like the Unabomber. His bloody hands grip rosary beads and a gun while he jerks his head around like a cartoon villain. Curiously, none of the Secret Service agents who are out to kill Luther can find him.
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“Much of our culture is eroding,” Higgins said. “There aren’t as many real Christians as there used to be.” When I asked, “What’s a real Christian?” he replied, “Somebody who will stand up for what he believes in and will not back down.” He praised the Luther character, saying, “Whenever people are willing to die for their cause, I think that is really special.” Yeah, that’s it. Let’s all become suicide bombers!
When Higgins voiced how important it is to protect our right to freedom, I asked if he thought women should have the freedom to do what they want with their bodies. He said, “Oh boy, that’s a tough question. That’s what I call a social issue.” Uh, yeah.
Thompson described the movie as “a thriller wrapped around a message of protecting constitutional rights.” He went on to say, “I think it’s interesting that it came out when it did.” When I asked if he was referring to the Hobby Lobby situation, he said, “Well, I don’t think that was exactly what Daniel Lusko had in mind when he started the film five years ago. The movie does point out what can happen when people in power decide to do nefarious things. Our constitutional rights, including our freedom of religion, can be threatened. This film is about what happens to a man when he stands up for his principles and what the higher ups try to do to compromise him.
“I think it becomes relevant in that respect because government is always a strong force — the Bill of Rights were written in order to protect people in regard to what the government might and might not be able to do. So that makes it relevant,” he added.
When asked to comment on Hobby Lobby, he said, “I think lots of us are surprised that we’re in a situation where the government is trying to tell certain people they have to provide services to other citizens even though it might violate their religious principles.”
(Now, wait a minute. Our government promotes the separation of church and state. So, why should employers force their religious views onto their female workers’ health benefit options? You can’t have it both ways. It’s freedom for all, and that includes women. But let’s not confuse anybody with facts.)
I asked how Thompson liked playing a priest. “I went from bad guys to a good guy in a real hurry. I just saw an interesting script and thought it would be fun to play a Catholic priest. It’s not something I’ve ever done before.”
Oh, yeah, one more point about the script: Thompson plays Luther’s father, who is a Catholic priest, but with absolutely no explanation on how that happened. I mean, what’s up with that breach of celibacy? Tsk, tsk. Those annoying facts again.
Bottom line: This movie was written for Christian conservatives, and they may enjoy it. Democrats, liberals, females and movie critics? Not so much.
Watch the trailer: