For kicks, I decided to pass the time during my lazy, uneventful day off by watching Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration, a church-sponsored film about the life of Joseph Smith. I found it on YouTube, split into five pieces, each with a description of the video containing a claim that it was a "documentary film." And as I watched, I noticed lots of things that seemed...wrong.
Prophetgasm Instead of Plot
The film is supposed to be following the events of Joseph Smith's life, but many of the events in the film are fictional--and if they are true, then they're trivial. These scenes often perform double duty as both character development and comic relief. They show that Joseph was a really, really good person and it helps lighten the mood to see the protagonist playing with children instead of freezing in a cramped jail cell.
But those scenes mostly feel like the Mormon equivalent of fan service. Indoctrinated Mormons who already hold Joseph Smith as only second to Jesus as far as awesome people who have graced this earth will get to see a historical character they adore being charming, funny, but above all, virtuous. And they'll eat it up and use it to reinforce their idealized, glorified perception of who Joseph Smith was.
The movie spends too much time on this and not enough time on the actual plot, so that the important historical events of Smith's life seem disjointed and spontaneously generated. More time should have been devoted to explaining how these events developed.
Obnoxious, Stupid Preacher
I get the sense that the audience is supposed to assume a kind of mutual respect between Joseph and the preacher from his hometown. I think we're supposed to see that Joseph looks up to him and that, more importantly, the preacher genuinely cares for Joseph and is concerned for his eternal welfare. Except that the script just makes the guy look like a complete prick.
One example: Joseph and the preacher are working together in a barn. The preacher earnestly informs him that revelation doesn't happen anymore and he should stop talking about the vision he claims to have had. And then he walks away. Apparently this wasn't a discussion or even an explanation. The preacher doesn't open his Bible and say, "this is why you're wrong." He doesn't give Joseph a chance to explain or ask questions. He just says, "Don't talk about it anymore" and walks away. Okay, dick.
Even better is the scene when Joseph is by his brother Alvin's grave, mourning his recent death. And the preacher walks up and reminds him none-too-gently that since Alvin wasn't baptized, he's "lost" and that Joseph should take care not to make the same mistake. And then, you guessed it, he wanders off. There was no hug, no "I'm terribly sorry for your loss," advice on how to deal with the grief or honor the memory. There wasn't even a respectful moment of silence. It was just a drive-by with a quick bullet to the heart and then he was gone. What a jerk.
The Perfect Couple
Joseph's relationship with his wife Emma is sickeningly overplayed. There are a few of the happy-married-couple-lying-in-bed-together-discussing-life scenes. There are a lot of shots in the film in which the presence of a wedding ring on Joseph's finger is made intentionally apparent. You get the sense, from watching this movie, that Joseph and Emma were inseparable, deeply in love, and the paradigm of a happily married couple in a healthy, traditional relationship. The fact that Joseph had a bunch of other wives never came up.
No Cause, Just Effect
Whenever this movie showed people who disliked Smith or the church, their opinions were not explored. The focus was more on the presence of their hatred than the reasoning for it. Perhaps since the film had already skipped historical events that would have painted Smith in a less-than favorable light, the writers couldn't delve too deeply into his murderers' motives while keeping Smith's image untainted. So that meant we got some random backstabbing army asshole trying to get Joseph executed even though we don't really understand why he's so intent on the prophet's demise.
I'm not saying that Smith's murder was justified. I'm just saying that this is evidence of just how skewed and one-sided the film is. These people weren't necessarily fueled by blind bigotry. The whole polygamy thing, Smith's attempts to create his own society and garner governmental power, as well as the church's tendency to draw converts away from their homes and roots could all understandably piss people off. But all you see in the film is unexplained hatred that, probably intentionally, makes all the bad guys look like idiots. It's pro-Mormon propaganda at its worst.
In the film, Joseph was unarmed when he was murdered. But that's not how it happened. He had a gun, and he used it. But he was defending himself. There's nothing wrong with that. So portraying him without a gun only helps destroy the movie's credibility.
Ugly Means Evil
Joseph and his buddies are trapped in the room in Carthage Jail, desperately trying to keep the door closed. They're all good-looking, well-dressed and clean. Then the camera cuts to the mob outside the door, full of men with unruly beards, bad teeth, filthy clothes and dirt smeared on their skin. You know, just to reinforce the idea that people who storm jails to murder prisoners are bad, the filmmakers figured they'd make sure they looked bad too. God forbid Joseph Smith's murderer was better-looking than the prophet himself. What a shameless attempt to manipulate people's perceptions.
And beyond the things about the movie that I simply disagree with, there's plenty in there that can easily be interpreted to mean something the church did not intend:
The Church Draws In Vulnerable People
The noble side-story about the woman and her father traveling to meet Joseph is pathetic. The woman reads Joseph's teaching that people who didn't have the opportunity to receive the gospel in life but would have accepted it can be saved. She turns to her father and says that her mother would have accepted the gospel. Suddenly, the story stops being about a woman whose faith was strong enough to carry her thousands of miles from home and starts being about a woman whose grief was strong enough to carry her thousands of miles from home. She thought she'd never see her mother again and that made her vulnerable to Joseph Smith's enticing lie.
Joseph Molded a Religion to Match His Needs
Smith suffered many losses of his own. Several children, his father and an idolized older brother all die during the course of the film. Especially based on Joseph's reaction to his brother's death, it seems that he created a religion that he wanted to be true. It spoke to his own fears. He wanted to see his brother again, and later he got "revelation" saying that he could. He was raised as a humble farm boy but started a religion that elevated him to a man of position, respect and reverence--God's mouthpiece in the modern day. It seems suspicious that the church he started gave him assurances and results that he would have wanted for himself.
Mormons Kinda Do Worship Joseph Smith
This issue is directly addressed in the movie. Joseph has a discussion with a woman who claims that the Mormons worship him, and he sets the record straight for her--they don't worship him, they just rely on him for the word of God. He's just their fearless leader and divinely inspired prophet.
But let's be honest--Mormons may not pray to Joseph Smith or consider him to be any kind of deity, but the way he's discussed in church meetings puts him pretty damn high on the list of beings that Mormons care about. He may not be worshiped, but he's held in nearly as high esteem as the things that are.
I don't know why I bothered to watch that movie. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy getting mad about Mormonism sometimes. But I do find it hard to believe how blatantly, shamelessly, unabashedly, unapologetically one-sided it was. I remember when it came out. I hadn't seen it, but I'd heard great things from those who had. It was heralded as a great film, a testimony-building experience. But that's not what it is. It's just propaganda by the Mormons for the Mormons. It's at once laughable and despicable.
And that does not seem right to me.