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We already know the answer, of course, because this is a Pure Flix movie called The Case for Christ, and our protagonist wrote the book on which it’s based. But Mike Vogel and Erika Christensen, in their roles as Lee and Leslie Strobel, inhabit the central dilemma compellingly enough to allow us to lay aside our knowledge of the outcome for the moment. The effect is further aided by the production design and cinematography, which, under director Jon Gunn’s guidance, seek to avoid the overlit, antiseptic visuals of the God’s Not Dead movies in favor of a plainer, darker look. In contrast to the artifice and sterile inspiration of most faith-based films, The Case for Christ offers a vision of reality that feels like—well, reality.

Alas, all that goes out the window when it comes time for the portions of the film that actually make the case for Christ. It is beyond the scope of a film review to evaluate the specific arguments and assumptions articulated by the people whom Strobel interviews, but regardless of their rhetorical and historical merits, the apologetics sequences make for bad cinema and bad storytelling. Periodically, the domestic melodrama and character development come to a screeching halt, superseded by enormous chunks of exposition that work better on a page than on a screen.

Gunn does his best to stage the interviews in an interesting way, but the results are nonetheless stilted, sometimes comically so. (A conversation with a medical professional, for example, is set in a laboratory with lots of doctors milling about, doing vaguely science-y things while ignoring the reporter who is distracting their boss with questions about the Crucifixion.) The audience is left with little to do other than twiddle their thumbs while they wait for the story to start rolling again.

During these interview scenes, the film unfortunately backslides into an all-too-familiar patronizing complacency. God’s Not Dead rightly received criticism for its simplistic portrayal of non-Christians, suggesting that Christianity’s empirical truth is so obvious that the only explanation for unbelief must be emotional dysfunction or willful ignorance. The Case for Christ avoids this pitfall by aligning the audience’s perspective and sympathy with an atheist protagonist: Strobel’s skepticism is complex, and is portrayed as such, at least to begin with. But the interview scenes have a flattening effect, reducing the knotty questions of faith to a series of propositions that are disposed of within a five-minute dialogue exchange. Strobel’s anger, confusion, and desperation to get to the bottom of Christianity melt away and are replaced with a bland certitude. Of course Christianity’s claims about Jesus are true—how could anyone believe otherwise?

Bird’s screenplay offers one possible answer to that question by having a psychologist character (Faye Dunaway, inexplicably) imply that fervent atheists all suffer from daddy issues (though she euphemistically uses the term “father wounds”). It’s a low point for the film, on par with Religulous’s sneering at religion as the last refuge of dullards who need affirmation from an “imaginary friend.” In that moment, The Case for Christ seems to forget that it’s a story about one atheist’s journey to faith, and instead becomes something much shabbier: a blunt instrument for use in debates.

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