[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.
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.