Review: Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates (B-)

Joseph Smith And The Golden Plates[Viewed at the LDS Film Festival on January 29th, 2011. Eventual theater or DVD release date unknown.  Screened version was complete enough to show, but there’s a strong possibility that more post-production and editing will be done pending an official release.  If there are any significant changes in any publicly released version compared to this January cut, I’ll post updates to this article.]

To the uninitiated, Joseph Smith And The Golden Plates may sound like a rousing pulp adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom — something you might have seen advertised fifty years ago with fancy movie posters promising thrills and chills.   (“SEE…an ancient temple with a TERRIBLE CURSE!   SEE…a horrible monster from the DEPTHS OF THE EARTH!”).

Rather, Joseph Smith And The Golden Plates is a faithful biography of LDS founder and prophet, Joseph Smith.   Instead of a complete end-to-end picture of Joseph’s life — probably beyond the scope of one film, anyway — writer/director Christian Vuissa (One Good Man, The Errand of Angels) has focused JSGP narrowly on the years between 1826 and 1830, covering the translation of the Book of Mormon and the founding of what would become The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

21-year-old Joseph Smith is trying to lead a normal life and fit in amongst his peers in early 19th century New York, including settling down and marrying the girl he loves.  Unfortunately, a “normal” life isn’t in the cards.   As he struggles with day-to-day difficulties like finding work and getting along with his disapproving father-in-law, he also attempts to complete his “divine mission” — something involving the “Golden Plates” granted to him by an angelic visitor for the purpose of translating a new book of scripture to give to the world.  A huge burden for one so young, especially as opposition and personal difficulties mount.

Vuissa has described the purpose and vision behind Joseph Smith And The Golden Plates to show a “human and identifiable” depiction of the young Joseph Smith, instead of the iconic, mythological figure that often gets placed on a pedestal in modern LDS culture.

Now, “human and identifiable” is a phrase that will mean different things to different people.  LDS are generally okay with “human” portrayals of Church prophets…as long as they’re not, you know, TOO human.

In this case, viewers shouldn’t be concerned.  Anyone familiar with Vuissa’s earlier work will know he’s not going to be presenting an “edgy” version of Joseph Smith that will challenge faithful Mormons’ view of The Prophet.  Despite Richard and Claudia Bushman’s presence in the credits as “Historical Advisors”, this is not Rough Stone Rolling: The Movie – there’s no seer-stone-in-a-hat on display here, nor any other historical elements that would fall outside of the standard picture presented of Joseph in LDS Sunday School classes.

(That said, there are two noteworthy nods to non-Sunday-School history: Joseph describes his First Vision to his wife using an earlier, year-appropriate phrasing, rather than the canonized (but anachronistic) 1838 version contained in current LDS scripture.  Also, a dialogue exchange between Joseph and his father is vague, but does contain at least a partial admission that Joseph’s early reputation as a “treasure hunter” and “gold digger” had some merit.   On the opposite side, the film uses some common, modern-day interpretations of prophetic processes that don’t line up with historical research:  Joseph is shown translating the golden plates by examining them uncovered directly in front of him, and is also shown receiving direct revelation at a moment’s notice which he then recites word-for-word to others in his presence.)

Many faithful LDS will undoubtedly appreciate this respectful retelling of the early years of Joseph Smith and LDS Church history, despite (or perhaps because) it is by-the-numbers and has few surprises.  To many, the fact that it’s a faithful Joseph Smith movie is the only important thing to know.   It’s beyond criticism.   If you’re in this camp, then you can just plan on buying tickets whenever Vuissa manages a local release, and the remainder of this article is superfluous.

For everyone else, JSGP has narrative elements and pacing issues that hurt its value strictly as a film.  While Vuissa’s sincerity and noble intent are beyond reproach, The Golden Plates is not a particularly strong movie, and won’t serve as the definitive film on Joseph Smith’s life.  Let’s look at the details.

JSGP’s strengths are in cinematography and scenic locations, giving the movie an excellent historical sense of time and place.  Joseph Smith himself is well cast — he and his wife Emma are both age appropriate, looking like two people just out of their teens who are struggling to adjust to “adult” life.

Joseph (when he’s allowed to) effectively shows the youthful exuberance and emotion that was an integral part of the historical Joseph — experiencing both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.    While I’d still give an edge to the Joseph from the Work & Glory series (Jonathan Scarfe), this Joseph is a strong character played by a good actor, and this film’s strongest asset.  I’d be happy having him around for any future sequels.

The first half of the film is the stronger half, as Joseph attempts to court Emma and win her father’s favor, then — after they’ve eloped — attempts again to win at least his grudging acceptance of him as part of the family.  Josiah Hale (played by Michael Flynn) is a doubter and has some natural worries about his daughter’s future well-being, but does show compassion and acceptance to a point in welcoming Joseph to the family.

One of the more effective dramatic elements is Mr. Hale’s continual pressure of Joseph to work and provide for himself and his family (like “normal” people do), and Joseph’s frustrations that the divine responsibilities entrusted to him seemingly prevent him from doing so, hurting his personal credibility.  Unfortunately, the second half of the film loses a lot of the personal character drama as the dry details of the translation and printing of the Book of Mormon, and the organization of the Church of Christ take center stage.

There are good elements here, but the key problem is that the film is maddeningly slow- paced, some of which can be attributed to the time period on display and (perhaps) unavoidable, but isn’t helped by some questionable directorial decisions.

“Show Don’t Tell”

Speaking of Indiana Jones movies, remember the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark? The ancient temple, the traps, and the giant rolling boulder?

Suppose the opening sequence didn’t exist, but was replaced by a scene of Jones sitting in his university classroom describing to Marcus Brody the details of what happened. (“I was falling down this pit!  And the stone door was closing!   And then this GIANT BOULDER came rolling down…!”)

Add as many verbal exclamation points as you like, hearing Indiana Jones talk about exciting things that happened off-screen obviously does not create nearly as interesting a movie scene.  One of the fundamental principles in motion pictures is to “Show Don’t Tell” — the audience should be SEEING things happen, not hearing characters talk about them.  Hearing someone talk about a giant rolling boulder is never going to be as compelling as seeing it happen on the screen.

JSGP has a major “Show Don’t Tell” problem.  Much of the film consists of movie characters sitting around a table telling other characters about things that happened off screen.  Why isn’t the film showing us those things instead?

  • Joseph sits around a table after retrieving the golden plates and describes how he was attacked on the way by several shadowy assailants and had to fight his way free.  Sounds like a dramatic, tension-filled experience, doesn’t it?  Why aren’t we seeing that, instead?
  • Martin Harris sits around a table telling others about how he took the translated manuscript home, and then his wife said this and he said that, and then a friend showed up and said this, and then…  Why aren’t we seeing that dramatized?
  • The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon sit around a table and tell others about their experience praying together, then Martin Harris feeling unworthy and leaving the group, and then the remaining others seeing an angel (and so on…).  Again, this sounds like it could be a powerful scene that’s integral to the plot — why aren’t we seeing it instead of just hearing about it?

There are even scenes that don’t show or tell, like Joseph and Oliver Cowdery reading in the Book of Mormon about authority relating to baptism, then walking off to the woods to pray.

What happens to them in the woods?  The movie doesn’t show us, and the characters don’t clue us in later, either.  LDS viewers will be able to fill in the gaps, but then what’s the point of putting that initial scene in the movie in the first place?

I get it: maybe Vuissa just isn’t an “action” director and showing an actual fight scene between Joseph and his assailants in the woods wasn’t within his capability to stage effectively.  Perhaps the low budget and short shooting schedule didn’t allow for many scenes and settings other than characters sitting around a table and talking.  Having these characters sit around a table telling their stories to others may even be historically accurate…but doesn’t create a good movie.  The whole point of seeing a dramatization of the Joseph Smith story on the screen instead of hearing about it from a Sunday School manual is to actually SEE it dramatized.

Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates ends up being very “talky”, with a suffocatingly slow pace from beginning to end — not helped by the “show don’t tell” problem, and that the characters are often constrained into a slow, “spiritual” monotone that makes many of the talking scenes drag even more.  (“We must…complete…the work…of the LORD!”)   Even Joseph Smith himself, who shows great emotion and energy at times, is often funneled into the same monotone delivery as everyone else.

In Vuissa’s defense, one consequence of choosing this time period to film is that it wasn’t a particularly “action-packed” era of Church history to begin with.  Many of the events of the Restoration during this time are significant in principle, while not being inherently interesting to watch (or hear people talk about).   How do you make sitting at a table and transscribing a 500 page book cinematically interesting in the first place? (“SEE…Joseph and Oliver take the manuscript TO THE PRINTER!”)

(Later periods in Church history have more mob-related activity — including Joseph being arrested multiple times — along with more personal and political intrigue within and without the Church.  Not good for Joseph, of course, but good for creating compelling cinematic elements that would entertain and inform viewers.)

It’s not a given that a different director would have produced a livelier, faster-paced film based on the available material in the period.  However, since Vuissa is also the writer of the film, and the one responsible for choosing this period to begin with as well as crafting scenes and guiding acting performances, he still must accept ultimate responsibility for creating a viable cinematic product that doesn’t leave viewers constantly glancing at their watch.  Especially, as is the case here, if the target audience already knows the basic story and events of the movie.

Target Audience

Speaking of the target audience, Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates seems to be limited narrowly to LDS members.   Active, long-time members, in fact — those already familiar with the details of the Joseph Smith story and the translation of the Book of Mormon.  If JSGP is meant to appeal to non-member viewers (or even members not intimately acquainted with Church history) it has quite a few narrative lapses.

After receiving the plates, Joseph exclaims, “The glasses! I can see everything!” (What glasses? Were there ‘glasses’ that accompanied the golden plates?  Before this statement, the movie has never mentioned anything about “glasses”.)

After Martin Harris loses the original manuscript with the first part of the translated Book of Mormon, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery continue translating the rest, and Joseph says, “The Lord has revealed that we are not to re-translate the ‘Book of Lehi'” (What’s the “Book of Lehi”?  Previously in the film, the original manuscript that Martin Harris lost was never referred to as the ‘Book of Lehi’ — this phrase appears out of nowhere.)

Many primary characters appear without introduction and are referred to only by first name by Joseph and others.  Long-time LDS familiar with history will recognize them immediately and fill in the blanks, but non-members will be confused by the lack of exposition as to who they are, why Joseph knows them, and what their relationship is.  (The name “Moroni” gets dropped a few times without the film explicitly making the connection between the name and the angel that will be giving Joseph Smith the plates.  Non-members unfamiliar with the name will probably be confused.)

Joseph’s story is treated as “fact” from beginning to end (as most faithful LDS productions of this story do).   There’s never any doubt from a narrative standpoint that Joseph’s statements about his divine mission and his experiences with angels are on-the-level.    Those who doubt him are portrayed in an over-the-top, villainous manner devoid of nuance.   JSGP doesn’t have any true “miraculous” content (all angelic visitations happen off-screen), however this appears to be a function of the low budget rather than a stylistic decision to portray Joseph’s story as an outsider might see it (as The Work & The Glory series did) with viewers having to decide for themselves through faith whether to believe the fantastic things Joseph is saying, just as those around him at the time did.

These natural biases and missing narrative elements guarantee this movie is going to have difficulty finding a non-LDS audience of those curious about the Joseph Smith story.   However, the by-the-numbers approach to faithful LDS history means that LDS members aren’t really going to learn anything about Joseph from what they already knew from Sunday School anyway.  At the end of the day, it’s an open question whether Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates has anything genuinely unique to contribute to the legacy of Joseph Smith in film, when compared to all the other Church-produced films about Joseph Smith’s life that already exist.

(This familiarity affects basic dramatic tension as well:  JSGP attempts to create some drama when Emma Smith has a difficult child-birth and is close to death, although since 99.9% of this movie’s audience already knows Emma doesn’t die at this time, dramatic effect is limited.)

As mentioned, a Joseph Smith film may be beyond criticism for most in the target audience.  If a portrayal — any portrayal — of the Joseph Smith story leads Church members to feel the Spirit and have a good experience, so be it.  There are good elements, and a worthy goal of exploring Joseph the person rather than Joseph the icon, especially his relationship with his wife and father-in-law.   I would have pushed all the “official” Church organizational stuff to the periphery and focused the entire film on just Joseph, Emma, Emma’s father and their inter-communication — the best dramatic element, and the best setting for exploring Joseph’s young personality and response to trials and personal difficulties.  In reality, there’s little reason for Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and many of the others to be in the film at all.

Final Grade: B-

Additional Notes and Comments:

(1) Christian Vuissa has said he’s open to doing follow-up films about the later years of Joseph’s life — as time and money dictates.  Given Vuissa’s approach to “edgy” Church material in his other films — namely, there isn’t any — part of the appeal for focusing on the 1826-1830 era may have been the safeness of it.  It will be interesting to see how Vuissa deals with the edgier material (read: the “p-word”) of Joseph Smith’s later life, if any follow-up films get off the ground.

(2) JSGP has one scene that shows some creativity in interpreting the historical stories of Joseph:  Vuissa imagines Joseph’s rushed decision to allow Martin Harris to take the original manuscript home to show his family as being made under duress — Emma was in labor, and Joseph had to make a decision quickly.  I’m not aware of any specific historical basis for this, but I was glad Vuissa was thinking outside the box a little, and presenting a plausible scenario with real dramatic value.  I wish the film had more instances of this.

(3) After losing the original manuscript, Martin Harris says, “Joseph, I may have sinned and broken my covenant…but I’m not wicked!”

Well, Martin, I’m very interested to hear what your definition of “wicked” is then, if not that…   Reminds me of Korihor from the Book of Alma who says, “I do not deny the existence of a God, but I do not believe that there is a God.” Say what?

(4) Congrats to Lindsay Farr (Emma Smith) who announced her call to serve a mission in Hong Kong at the LDS Film Festival screening.  (This will further complicate any development on a sequel, obviously…)

(5) A theological note:  The movie begins with a scene of Joseph visiting the grave of his older brother Alvin.  An unnamed minister approaches and tells Joseph it was hardly a coincidence that Alvin died soon after Joseph began talking of visions and angels.  (“It’s blasphemy!”)

Later, after Joseph’s first-born baby has died (nearly taking Emma with him), Emma’s father tells Joseph that his death was obviously a punishment from God for Joseph’s “apostasy” and that he needs to repent.

Ascribing divine intervention to all things good and bad is a common trait to believers of all faiths, but especially Mormons.   LDS testimony meetings are frequently filled with statements of gratitude for new jobs, healthy babies, and other blessings, all purported to be due to direct assistance from the divine.  Of course, when layoffs, still-born babies, or other tragedies occur, Mormons aren’t as quick to attribute them to divine activity.  (“I guess God was really mad at me that day…”)

It’s an interesting irony because in those two situations presented in the film, we’re obviously supposed to be on Joseph’s side — rejecting (if not feeling outright offended at) the ‘ridiculous’ notion that the deaths of Joseph’s brother and baby would be due to God’s direct handywork — God “punishing” him — rather than just tragic circumstances that afflicted many families in the 19th century.

Since LDS theology is usually on the side of divine providence, not “happenchance”, these two scenes show what happens when the shoe is on the other foot — when divine providence is invoked by others in contexts where Mormon viewers are more-or-less forced to reject it.  (God obviously couldn’t be “punishing” Joseph Smith and his family for “blasphemy” if he’s genuinely His prophet, right?)

Naturally, this rejection raises a direct theological question:  if trials and challenges (especially among people considered “righteous” in God’s eyes) shouldn’t be directly attributed to God (as the other religious believers in the film say, but Mormons would not), how do we turn around and directly attribute blessings to God without running into a logical contradiction?

If still-born babies “just happen” — without regard to personal righteousness — then maybe healthy babies “just happen” as well.   If being laid off despite being a worthy Church member and tithe payer is something that “just happens” sometimes, maybe finding a good job as a worthy Church member and tithe payer is as well?  How do we know God plays an active part in either?   A belief in God does not necessarily require a belief in God as a “micromanager”.    What if randomness and things that “just happen” for no higher purpose are just a fact of life, regardless of God’s existence?

I don’t believe these brief sections of Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates were deliberately meant to inspire deep theological questions about trials and blessings, but it is a reminder that someone saying some event or happening is “God’s will” or due to “God’s power” doesn’t mean it actually is, even when Latter-Day Saints are saying it.

  • Peter Brown

    After stumbling upon this review, I am amazed and almost entertained at how much this writer does NOT want to like this film. But he (I assume it’s a he, it’s posted anonymously as KevinB) can’t really say anything negative about it except that the film is not “edgy” (what does that mean again?) and not an action-adventure film (well, it’s a historical drama).
    The writer obviously envisions an “action-packed” movie (Indiana Jones) with “mob-related activity” (even criticizing the time period the film covers). Much of this review is about KevinB stating what kind of movie he would make if he could make movies (edgy and action-packed), saying things like “I would have pushed…” and making several assumptions as to the motives of the filmmakers without backing them up or exploring them more sincerely.
    At the same time he completely misses the fact that this film is about Joseph Smith’s deep concern for the welfare of his soul and his constant struggle to please God. Maybe instead of Indiana Jones, KevinB should watch films like Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc to get comfortable with a “suffocatingly slow pace from beginning to end.”
    Those interested in a more objective and accurate review, should read the write-up in Mormon Times. Sharon Haddock calls the film “breathtakingly beautiful and historically meaningful” and “a masterpiece, both in story and in rendition.” I agree with this assessment wholeheartedly. Or in the words of another blogger: “Wow! I mean, wow! This is LDS Church history the way it was meant to be told. I was riveted from start to finish.”

  • KevinB

    Coincidently enough, the previous comment represents exactly what I mean about a Joseph Smith movie being “beyond criticism”.  It’s simply not possible that I could have genuinely and objectively disliked a movie about Joseph Smith, (or, in this case, simply considered it slightly mediocre), I obviously must have WANTED not to like it from the very beginning!

    Questioning “objectivity” is fair game, but questioning “accuracy” is a little over-the-top…  Did I misstate some of the content of the film or any of the details?    Do you genuinely think I actually loved the movie in my heart and am inaccurately lying about it for some strange ulterior motive?    Again, is it just not possible that a reviewer could “accurately” give a film a “B-“?

    (By the way, Peter, I’m curious whether you’ve actually seen the film or not — your comments simply refer to other reviews of the film and mention nothing about content other than the theme of “Joseph’s concern for the welfare of his soul and constant struggle to please God”, which is taken directly from the press materials for the movie.   I’m seriously suspecting you haven’t…)

    The Indiana Jones references (obviously) are tongue-in-cheek based on the pulp-sounding name of the movie.  Joseph Smith doesn’t need to be an action hero.  However, a movie can be well-paced and full of “action” (even verbal “action”) without needing to be an “action-adventure” movie.

    “Talky” movies do not have to be slow — look at The Social Network.  Joseph Smith movies do not have to be slow-paced, either — look at The Work & The Glory series.  The life of Joseph Smith and the history of the Church is full of drama and interesting “action” elements that don’t necessarily involve fighting or death-defying stunts.  This movie, however,  *is* slow, and tells when it should be showing.

    Counter arguments are welcome (from people who have actually seen the film, not just read blog posts about it), but I will submit that anyone who wants to seriously question “objectivity” or “accuracy” should provide more specific examples to present their case.

    I would actually raise the question whether the subject matter allows Church members in general to be “objective” in considering a Joseph Smith movie — whether the desire to praise anything that praises Joseph Smith takes away from one’s ability to judge a Joseph Smith movie objectively strictly as a *movie*.  (Similar to how Church members will slap a Sunday School teacher on the back and say “Good lesson!” regardless of whether the lesson was any good or not.)   A topic to explore another day…

  • Peter Brown

    I did see the film at the LDS Film Festival with friends, and we were all deeply touched by the story. It was an entirely different experience than with other similar films. It was not my intention to imply that you were “inaccurately lying,” but based on your review I don’t think you ever let yourself “experience” the film. Any film will be “boring” if the viewer doesn’t submit to the story being told, even Indiana Jones. But to call something boring in the first place is not only subjective but also immature. This is something a teenager would say. And to use the term “slow” as a negative, is also by itself revealing. There are many “slow” films that are beautiful and praiseworthy, and many “fast” films that are questionable in both quality and content.

    Maybe a review about a Joseph Smith film is “beyond criticism.” Because anyone who would dare to do so must have lost his “ability to judge a Joseph Smith movie objectively” (except, obviously, for the reviewer himself). After reading some of your other reviews, I can only come to the conclusion that your “ulterior motive” might possibly be to use LDS films to sound off your own beliefs and concerns about the Church, with little interest in exploring the actual films and their intentions. You clearly showcase a superior and condescending attitude in your reviews, judging the films, filmmakers, and LDS faithful according to your filtered view of Mormonism.

    I believe that we are actually in dire need of good criticism and LDS films are not “beyond criticism” at all. But good criticism is only possible if the films and filmmakers of such criticism are taken seriously and treated respectfully. Your attitude is entirely different. But why criticize something if you care little about it? Is good criticism a form of mockery, or a form of respectful analysis? There is an argument to be made that LDS criticism will be most effective if it follows scriptural counsel and criticizes  “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.” Someone who takes his role as a critic seriously, is also aware of his responsibility when evaluating a given work.

    Obviously, I’m trying to give you a hard time. But for someone who writes anonymously and whose favorite film (based on your review) is Beauty and the Beast-A Latter-Day Tale, questions about your credibility are more than appropriate.

  • Mr. Day

    Enjoyed the exchange between Peter and Kevin. I think Kevin wins.

  • KevinB

    Peter, that’s pretty bold of you to essentially challenge my testimony…as if criticizing a movie about Joseph Smith is equivalent to criticizing Joseph Smith himself.    As if it’s not possible for someone with a testimony of Joseph Smith to dislike a movie about Joseph Smith. (Heck, I said in the article that the character of Joseph Smith and the actor playing him were among the best parts of the film)

    I challenge you to name any specific instances where I “mock” or “disrespect” Joseph Smith, the filmmakers, or anything related to the restored gospel.  (From the article: “[Writer/Director Christian] Vuissa’s sincerity and noble intent are beyond reproach…”)]

    You talk about LDS film needing “criticism”, but don’t offer any defense of the film other than you were “deeply touched”.  That’s wonderful…but, so what?   What if someone else was “deeply touched” by Beauty & The Beast?  Would that automatically invalidate whatever issues or concerns you happened to have with the film?

    (Beauty & The Beast — if it matters — isn’t first on my list, it’s fifth.  The complete list in order is here.  Why would liking or disliking one movie more than you did affect “credibility” if I give specific and detailed reasons for that like or dislike within the text?  Everyone’s entitled to your opinion?)

    If discussions of pacing, narrative omissions, and the lack of character drama in the second half of the film are not appropriate “criticism” for an LDS film (or any film) then I honestly have no idea what you mean by the word.  Your comment suggests that all those film-making details are irrelevant if you’re truly “experiencing” the film or if you’re moved by it — that’s as textbook a definition of “beyond criticism” as anyone could present.

    I’m curious:  outline for me what it would take for you to give a film about Joseph Smith a bad “review”.  What would have to happen in terms of writing, acting, pacing, or story problems before you would say, “I appreciate the filmmaker’s intent to present a faithful movie about Joseph Smith’s life, but this film REALLY has a lot of problems with it and I can’t recommend it.” What does a “respectful analysis” of an LDS film look like, in your mind?  Since you haven’t presented any arguments other than “Well, *I* liked it…therefore I think everyone else should have, too…” I have no idea how to judge your credibility in judging my credibility.

  • Donny Lecky

    man i love what you are doing with this blog

  • Darryl Barksdale

    I just finished viewing the movie, and by way of honest and complete disclosure, am a faithful Latter-day Saint. And I thought the movie was more of a “C+” than a “B-.” And wonder of wonders, I have a deep and abiding testimony of Joseph Smith’s role as a prophet of God.

    Kevin is spot-on in his critique of the movie. It *IS* slow, although I would stop short of calling it “boring.” He is absolutely correct about the points he raises, and I would raise some of my own… some major, some minor. One of the major omissions that I noticed would be the failure to include the visit to Charles Anthon, and the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, which wasn’t addressed at all. Nor was the visitation of John the Baptist, as Kevin has aptly pointed out.

    The production values in this film were so-so… not quite up to a Dutcher film, but definitely not as horrendous as “The Book of Mormon Movie.” More of halfway inbetween. Speaking of which, one has to wonder if Peter believes that it is possible to despise that hideous waste of celluloid and be a righteous, temple-worthy member of the Church. If not, I’m in big trouble. :)

    The bottom line is that this film is a mixed bag. It delightfully excels in some areas while disappointing in others. As an example of sloppiness and poor attention to detail, take another look at the end credits… in several categories, multiple people are listed multiple times in succession… for the same job . For an example of excellent filmmaking, the costumes looked absolutely authentic and hand-sewn, and the music is breathtaking.

    The cinematography and lighting are certainly not going to garner any honors for this film… the lighting was largely flat, and the cinematography is muddy and uninspiring.

    The location where the film was shot was curious… Boston? Seriously? it certainly begs the question as to why the film-makers were denied access to the real church properties… is there an interesting back-story here? Or did they even ask?

  • Randy

    Just caught up with this review after seeing the film in NYC a few weeks ago. Thanks for always posting such thorough reviews, Kevin, of films a lot of us can’t see if we’re not in Orem in January. I think you’re pretty spot on, especially about the show-don’t-tell problem. I don’t want to speculate why characters discuss scenes that would have been more interesting to see, but in several instances while watching the film I found myself asking, “Wait, what happened? Aren’t we going to see the rest of that scene?” (i.e. retrieving the plates).

    I disagree about whether gearing the film exclusively toward a believing LDS audience is a problem. I tend to say, Thank goodness Christian didn’t try to make a film that would communicate to outsiders. They aren’t going to see it anyway, so we might as well have a conversation amongst those of us who are already familiar with the story. Whether he should have edged more toward the Rough Stone Rolling version or not is another issue…

    Finally I say kudos to Lindsay Farr for handily walking away with the entire film. Dustin Harding did a great job, and it was fun to meet him at the screening, but I found myself much more interested in Emma and her conflicts–even comparing herself to Mary Whitmer’s vision of the plates–than Joseph’s, and I was incredibly frustrated at the degree to which she disappeared in the third act. Dustin confirmed that there are two more films planned down the road, and it’ll be great to see how all the actors, especially Lindsay, evolve their characters.

    It doesn’t look like there will ever be a “definitive” film on Joseph Smith, like people used to think there would be. Instead it looks like we’re going to have a lot of options, different interpretations, and that suits me fine. Even in my screening there were mixed responses, and that’s appropriate: I was part impressed and part disappointed, yet another friend–and a brilliant filmmaker–was in tears through the final third. The film worked better for her than for me, and I’m glad it did. I would never dare make a film about Joseph Smith at all, so my hat goes off to anyone who does.

    But if I did I’d try to cast Daniel Craig. Same Paul Newman eyes, and Carthage might turn out a little differently…

  • Randy

    Oh, and just a thought about LDS film criticism. In “The Gospel Vision of the Arts” President Kimball says that our motion pictures must be “purified by the best critics.” Serious critics aren’t going to pat themselves on the back and say, “I’m the best critic,” but they are going to try to provide criticism that purifies the films, and I don’t think becoming purified is always a painless process. Some dross will get burned off. That takes a thorough understanding of scriptures, yes, but nobody’s going to thank a critic who hands out passes where they aren’t due in the name of patience. Basically, we’re all doing our best to help purify the films, just like the filmmakers are doing to create them.

  • Mark Greene

    I am a Mormon who believes in Joseph Smith as a true prophet of God. I have seen the JSPG movie. There are some valid comments on both sides in the previous exchange between Peter and Kevin. The movie was somewhat slow and there was a lot of telling without showing. There was no supernatural drama. However, for me, the slowness and the telling without showing resonated with everyday life and set the main message of the movie. How do we come to believe by hearing only? There seemed to be two main categories of people in the movie–those who had to see to believe and those who believed because they heard. Some characters in the movie, like Martin Harris and like most of us, found themselves vacillating between both categories.

    A big challenge in our daily lives is to decide what we believe based only on the words we hear without seeing. How do we come to a knowledge of the truth of what we hear? I find the counsel in Ether 4:15 helpful. The problem all mortals have to deal with is the “veil of unbelief”. This veil causes “hardness of heart” and “blindness of mind”. Such a state is fatal to faith.

    Perhaps the green light to faith is to actively believe what seems reasonable in our mind and feels right in our heart. Even though it is probably better to act on our feelings alone, beware if there is conflict between the heart and the mind. To resolve this conflict, It takes the process of rending the veil of disbelief by seeking, asking, and knocking, to arrive at this confirming state of faith with both mind and heart in accord. Then we will be blessed with seeing if only in a spiritual light.

    This movie caused me to examine my own “veil of unbelief” and ask questions about my state of hardness of heart and blindness of mind. For this reason alone it was of value to me.

    Mark Greene

  • Michael

    So I have not seen the movie but am interested in it. my question about the show don’t tell comments is what was shown? and does there seem to be artistic reasons that it did not show certain things. for example could it be easy for someone to walk out and say well that’s what he said happened but i don’t believe in such fantastic things, or is it a mix of heavenly messengers and then just hearsay? that confuses intent and makes it look like the director did only half of the job right.

  • Recon Rick


    You’re a better than average writer, and I enjoyed your detailed descriptions and well-thought out criticisms. However, please note that periods and commas go on the INSIDE of quotation marks, not the outside…unless you’re British, of course. There is an exception, when attaching a source in parenthesis at the end of a sentence. Proper and accurate writing should still matter, I hope. Still, our public schools continue to let us down…

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  • Chris Larsen

    I didn’t like the movie. I liked the Restoration movie much better. We need too show what Joseph saw, not just be “read” to like a black and white article in a history book.

  • kyle c

    I really appreciated Kevin B’s comments and I hope Recon Rick doesn’t critique my English:) I found this movie inspiring, as did many around me from the number of sniffles and tissues being reached for that I saw. It helped me understand the chronological order of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon like I never had before. It gave me new appreciation for Joseph, Emma, and all those who helped in the translation and publishing. If any cast members read this, congratulations on your excellent portrayals! I thought the actors playing Joseph and Emma were outstanding.

    My comments next are addressed to members of the church, since I believe those would mainly be the ones going to this movie. I believe that the spirit speaks to each of differently; remember the gifts of the spirit? “…to others is it is given to believe on their WORDS…” This film was more effective for me listening to the testimony of actual historical words than if I had been shown scenes. This does not mean that someone walking away from this movie spiritually fed is more spiritual or enlightened than someone who felt it was only a movie, and an average one at that. It means that the spirit speaks to us differently, and that could even change at different times of our lives.

    The real tragedy is if someone doesn’t go to a movie like this based on the review of someone else. Go and find out for yourself with the intent of experiencing the film. I have a family member who took her non-member sister and after the film her sister remarked that she was going to start reading 10 pages a day of the Book of Mormon to find out what it really was about. I hope people don’t miss experiences like this because someone else found the movie less than they expected. Let’s respect the fact that we can all have opinions, but just because the movie didn’t work for you doesn’t mean it couldn’t have a huge impact on someone else. I would encourage everyone I know to see this film as I believe it has the potential to strengthen and change lives for good.

  • kyle c

    Oh…a huge mistake! I meant to say I appreciated Mark Greene’s comments! They were very thought provoking to me and led me to write the above comment.

  • Kevin Poynter

    I can appreciate Kevinb’s comments, as his criticisms mirror many that I have for previous LDS films. I haven’t seen the Joseph Smith movie, but I intend to. I do so with trepidation though, as a previous LDS movie, “The Book of Mormon Volume 1: The Journey” was one of the worst films of all time. However to read the reviews of it at the time by LDS filmgoers, it was the greatest cinematic masterpiece since “Citizen Kane”. Church members were even saying stuff like that on the film’s website, i.e. “My favorite movie of all time”, “masterpiece”, “better than ‘The Ten Commandments'”, etc. That movie was a disaster and an embarrassment. (What ever happened to Book of Mormon Part 2, by the way? It’ll never happen, and thank heaven.) I’m a life long member, and its not enough for me to see any LDS related movie as long as it’s printed on real film, using real lighting techniques, and is shown on a big screen. We need people who can write dialogue that doesn’t provoke unintentional laughter; actors that can convey emotion without trying to manipulate the audience with trembling voices and gut wrenching sobs. Look at Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire” in the scene where he talks about how he felt witnessing the JFK assassination: very little movement, with his back partly to us, a subtle tear maybe, a slight tremble to his voice, nothing like the histrionics we see in LDS films, and yet it was devastating in portraying Clint’s character’s emotions.

  • Joyce Wilson

    I just watched the film last Saturday and sorry but I was mostly disappointed. I was moved to tears when ‘Joseph’ buried his first child and when Harris confessed his loss of the manuscript. For the most part the actors were not good – most were boring; they came across as not believing in the words the spoke. Actually they were not acting or feeling, just speaking.

  • Elizabeth

    Interesting comment above…it seems if you (Joyce) were moved to tears- not once, but twice, the actors must have had you believing and feeling something! Perhaps you were mostly disappointed that you weren’t moved to tears three times?

  • Doug

    What was the deal with the “bad guy” who came into Joseph’s house to steal teh plates? The film showed the divining rods and they moved to point right at the hearthstone where the plates had just been hidden. I thought “oh boy, now Joseph is in trouble!” and was interested to see how this would be resolved. Instead the scene suddenly ended and the tension evaporated and there was zero resolution. Did I miss something there?


    It’s hard to make a good positive movie about LDS since LDS is based on the most outlandish assumption of spiritual truth since the Greek Gods. It’s not hard…’s impossible. Take the best director and screenwriter in the world with an unlimited budget and tell them to create a movie taking the mormon beliefs as facts and tell it the Mormon way and the movie would be reviewed as an absurd comedy

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