Billy: The Early Years
Billy Graham has appeared in many movies over the years, most of them produced by World Wide Pictures, the movie studio that he founded through his evangelistic ministry in the 1950s. But apart from a handful of parodies, no actor has ever played him before, and certainly no film has tried to show what kind of person he was prior to becoming the internationally recognized preacher that he is today. So there was lots of fertile ground for Billy: The Early Years, the first major Graham biopic, to explore. Too bad, then, that the film does such a poor job of bringing his story to life.
Directed by Robby Benson (an actor-turned-director best known for voicing the furry prince in Disney's Beauty and the Beast) from a script by William Paul McKay (who produced the miraculous-survival-of-Israel documentary series Against All Odds) and Jana Lyn Rutledge (whose résumé includes the Canadian Christian kids' show Circle Square), the film does have one brilliant idea, but squanders its potential.
The film takes its cue from Amadeus, and tells the story of Graham's life through the eyes of Charles Templeton (Martin Landau), an old, hospitalized man who worked with Graham in the early days but then lost his faith. Now, decades after abandoning the ministry, Templeton is on his deathbed and giving an interview to a reporter (Jennifer O'Neill) who wants to know what working with Graham was like.
In an ideal world, this set-up would allow the filmmakers to wrestle with questions of faith and doubt, with Graham (Armie Hammer) on one side and Templeton (the younger version of whom is played by Kristoffer Polaha) on the other. In an ideal world, this set-up would allow the filmmakers to go deeper than the typical hagiography; it would allow the modern viewer to get seriously involved in Graham's life story and the issues it raises, far more than any mere sermon could ever do.
But alas, this device never really works, for several reasons.
For one thing, despite the fact that old Templeton narrates much of the 98-minute movie, young Templeton does not share the screen with Graham until about an hour into the film (though we do get brief glimpses of the young Templeton's own preaching, which he did before meeting Graham, as an aside). So basically two-thirds of Graham's life story is narrated by a guy who wasn't even there. This gives us no opportunity to compare and contrast their characters, and it causes us to wonder why the framing device was needed in the first place.
Given that the film covers 15 years in Graham's life—from his conversion as a teen at a revival meeting in 1934 to his landmark Los Angeles crusade in 1949—perhaps the filmmakers wanted to use this device to smooth over the various transition points, as the narrative hops from one episode in Graham's life to another. But if that was the idea, it doesn't work. The movie tends to skim the various bits and pieces of Graham's life story as though it were offering a point-form synopsis of his biography, like the sidebar in an encyclopedia entry, rather than telling a story, and no amount of narration can hide the fact that the film keeps things pretty superficial.