Friday, September 14, 2012

Altered Call: "Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham" (1993)

Randall Balmer is both writer and host/interviewer in this very good documentary on the world's most famous evangelical preacher.

Released in 1993, the film follows the complications in setting up a crusade in Portland, Oregon, and also reveals Graham's life through old films of his revivals and interviews with many people who have known him over the decades.

Graham grew up on a dairy farm in North Carolina, and attended church every Sunday out of duty more than faith. He answered an altar call while in high school, and soon took his youthful brand of preaching on the road. Eventually, he amassed a huge following, attracted the attention of presidents, and has preached to more people than any other person on earth. He attributes his success to two things, according to the film: integrity of the ministry and the power of the message.

Do not assume, however, that this is a rosy picture of William Franklin Graham. An old friend is carted out who tells of a seemingly lifelong argument the two have had concerning faith vs. intellect. Graham's involvement and friendship with Richard Nixon is also shown a little unfavorably, as is Graham's former preaching to segregated crowds. The interviews range from such differing notables as H.R. Haldeman to Jesse Jackson, and you get a very good sense as to what people think of Graham.

Accompany that with the army of volunteers at the Portland crusade, and an idea develops that while tons of planning and marketing go into getting Graham's word out, he still humbly acknowledges that he has been giving the same sermon in different variations for over fifty years (at the time the film was shot).

Most surprising is the changes that have occurred since this film was shot. Graham referred to New York City as a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, but that was before Rudy Giuliani came in and cleaned it up. Jackson talks about Graham's lack of public support for civil rights, but before Jackson's own hiding of the truth would come back to haunt him. Graham admits his wrongs, and shows that he desegregated his audiences long before others in 1953, an early year in the civil rights campaign. The narrator Balmer lists Bill Clinton as a friend of Graham, although we know later Clinton felt God's laws did not apply to him, just like U.S. law was made to be negotiated and examined for loopholes. He obviously did not refer to Graham in some issues in his life.

Graham comes across as very humble and very sincere, but I would have liked to know more about what makes the man tick. His wife and five children (some who are prominent preachers today) are glossed over, and Graham seems to have sat down to just one long interview, as opposed to access that would have allowed the narrator to ask more questions as the crusade progressed. The interviews are helpful, but the film makers obviously were not given "backstage access," as it were.

This is still a very good effort, and more enlightening than some of those biography shows that are little more than theme music and encyclopedia readings.

"Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham" brings the evangelist right to the surface, I just wish we could have seen deeper. (* * * *) out of five stars.