The first line of dialogue spoken by main character Sam Childer (Gerard Butler) in “Machine Gun Preacher” cannot be printed in this newspaper, and it really isn’t delivered in the most polite tone. So during the Q-and-A after a screening of the film with the real-life Sam Childer, how could he describe himself as a “servant of God” and as someone “working for Jesus?” The answer takes about 30 years, countless trips to Sudan and the rescued lives of thousands of Sudanese children to figure out. But if you only have two hours to spare, “Machine Gun Preacher” doesn’t do a bad job, either.
The film gets off to a tumultuous start. It opens with a massacre in a small Sudanese village where a child is forced to kill his own mother to survive before cutting to a few years earlier, when an angry and unshaven Sam Childers is released from jail under uncertain circumstances. After getting out of jail and reuniting with his stripper wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), Sam immediately stops by a bar to meet up with one of his derelict biker friends, Donny (Michael Shannon). What happens next is an onslaught of muddled action and cliches. From shooting up heroine to killing hitchhikers, almost every bad-boy stereotype is exploited in the first 15 minutes.
However, after its rocky and decidedly uneven start, “Machine Gun Preacher” gets to the real meat of the story. Sam finds Jesus and goes on a missionary trip to Africa, where he’s meant to help build a church and go home. Instead, he finds himself witnessing the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army that’s been terrorizing Sudan. After returning home he builds a church aimed at simpler “Pennsylvania hicks” like himself and starts work on an orphanage in Sudan. He returns frequently to the area — despite pleas from his family and friends — to expand the orphanage, and he begins taking matters into his own hands by rescuing abducted children through increasingly violent methods.
The biggest problem the film contends with is its pacing. As the real Sam Childers mentioned during the Q-and-A, the story took place over a 30-year span in real life, yet within the movie it starts “a few years” prior to 2003 and ends around 2008. That’s maybe one-third the time it took the real Sam Childer to believably transform from a drug-addled convict to a controversial religious activist. The story is incredible and the man is amazing, but the film suffers a lack of focus as a result of trying to speed up time. Many of the minor storylines were either abandoned or were settled so quickly that it bordered on straining believability.
The Q-and-A after the movie was interesting for many reasons. First, it was immediately apparent that the real Sam Childers is no Gerard Butler. This may seem obvious at first, but it was almost as if the director didn’t even make an effort to replicate Sam Childer’s appearance. Childer also had a great sense of humor, which unfortunately never made it into the ultra-serious movie about his life. Even when answering the most serious questions posed to him, Childer’s always peppered his answers with personality and humor. He admits that parts of the movie are exaggerated, but contends that the children in Sudan idolize him so much that they would beg to differ.
Sam Childer is no slouch, though. He still spends an average of seven months per year in Africa visiting his numerous orphanages that span three countries, and he remains very outspoken on his theory that “if your family member is captured and I told you that I could get them back, would you care how?” If there’s one thing the film got right, it was his dedication to his cause.
In all, “Machine Gun Preacher” is a decent film that recounts an extraordinary story. It’s not a bad film by any count, but it’s certainly not a must-see. It tries to squeeze in too much, show too many angles, and make too many points in far too little time. Sam Childer’s story is inspiring and thoroughly engaging, but it may not have received the film treatment it deserved.