Review: Christmas Angel (B-)

Christmas AngelJust in time for Christmas, let’s look at Christmas Angel, a holiday-themed movie directed by Brian Brough (Turn Around, Rescued, Beauty & The Beast) and released to video in 2009.

Christmas Angel stars Bruce Davison as the title character, a rich retiree who spends his remaining years doing “Secret Santa” service for those around him.

Davison’s character — symbolically named “Nick” — spends great effort to perform his acts of service without notice or praise, but two who know his ‘secret’ are Ashley, his down-on-her-luck neighbor whom he enlists as his personal assistant, and Will, an ambitious writer who may turn Nick’s service into a public magazine story for all to read.  (They are played by Kari Hawker and KC Clyde, their second movie together after The Dance.)

Like many Christmas movies, Christmas Angel is a simple, feel-good experience with no true “villains” and little conflict.  (The worst thing any character does is “take a quote out of context”.)  While dealing broadly with issues such as sadness, loneliness, and death — non-trivial things during the Christmas season when the suicide rate notably rises — Christmas Angel focuses on the positive side of humanity, emphasizing good people and the feelings of service and charity.  (“When you help someone, you’re the one that benefits the most!” says Nick.)

Ashley, an orphan without family or friends other than Nick and her dog, despises the holiday season (“a commercial, soulless endeavor that encourages over-spending and eating”).  Will looks at Nick’s story as a means to an end — a great public interest story to help get him in his editor’s good graces.   As you might expect, both of them have their hearts softened towards service and charity (and each other) by the end.  Yes, it’s all pretty predictable, but since it has a good heart, viewers will probably be inclined to forgive the film for its unoriginal narrative.

Other than older characters musing about the afterlife, Christmas Angel stays strictly non-religious — possibly bothersome to viewers who prefer at least some “Christ” in their Christmas, but the primary themes of compassion, charity, and serving others should count as “religious” enough for most audiences whether belonging to a specific church or not.

Christmas Angel — in keeping with the cheerful holiday spirit — is one of the least cynical films around; however there’s a cynical subtext to the film that deserves discussion since it underlies the entire premise of the film:  that is, the value and importance of money when it comes to service.

We learn early on that Nick is living beneath his means in a lowly apartment next to unemployed Ashley.  When he offers her a job as his personal assistant to facilitate the secret Santa gifts around the city, he admits that’s he’s actually wealthy (“enough to buy several city blocks”, he says).  After she looks at the list of service targets and expenses he has planned, she remarks (correctly) that “this stuff costs money!”

Yes it does, and the fact of the matter is:  the movie wouldn’t exist without having a rich character bank-roll everything in it.  Where did Nick’s money come from?  He used to be a CEO of a large company — a “ruthless” one, in fact, as he notes himself in an introspective moment, one more concerned about dollars than human value.

Nick describes his change of heart — about realizing what truly mattered in life, and setting in motion his plan to use his great wealth appropriately.  Good for him — obviously the world needs more people who come to exactly that same conclusion — but we can’t help but note that without having been that “ruthless” CEO in the first place, none of the service Nick renders in the film would have been possible simply because the money would not have been there.

Having the right attitude towards service and compassion is the first (and most important) step in charity, but money forms such an essential part of Nick’s particular brand of service that it simply begs the question:  what if you’re NOT independently wealthy?  What can individuals who weren’t former CEOs do to make a difference in the community?  Surely there’s something for Ashley, Will (and by extension, the viewers of the film) to learn about service that doesn’t require having a fabulously rich neighbor to facilitate?

This dilemma is actually addressed in the film indirectly in one of the subplots:  Nick tells Ashley and Will about his friend — a father mourning his son who died while saving others.  Nick knows he’s troubled, but doesn’t have a solution (obviously, this is a situation where spending money doesn’t do a lot of good).    Later, Ashley and Will consult together and come up with a solution using more intangible resources at their disposal that’s appropriate and meaningful to him, without requiring great cash outlays.

This serves as a good example of how charity can be performed without needing to be rich, but isn’t emphasized as a major theme of the film.   Nick and Ashley’s primary mechanism for charity throughout the movie is spending money — which, again, is valuable and necessary service, especially among the truly poor and needy, but not necessarily feasible or instructive for average viewers who don’t have wealthy fictional movie characters as friends.

The other noteworthy financial subtext in Nick’s story is that it’s obvious Nick isn’t actually using his money very effectively.   He obtains his targets for secret charity through personal observation and a handful of helpful informants — useful in smaller scopes, but surely a more systematic way might find charitable endeavors on a larger scale?  Nick hires Ashley to assist him, seemingly only because she’s his neighbor and she’s unemployed and this is part of his “charity” to her.  But surely there are a lot of “Ashleys” out there — unemployed individuals who would love to be part of a good cause if given the chance?  If Nick is indeed “filthy rich”, why not hire more than one assistant, not only for their benefit, but for support of his cause as well?

With the amount of money and resources at Nick’s disposal, wouldn’t he and everyone else be far better off creating a charitable foundation on a larger scale?   More employed people equals a greater utilization of resources equals a greater scope for charitable impact around the community.  It seems that Nick would (ironically) be better off if he actually approached his charity as he once approached his job as CEO of a corporation.  Obviously, part of the reason for his limited scope of service is his desire to remain “secret”, but at some point the value of secrecy and anonymous service would become dwarfed by what could be accomplished by a more direct, and organized (albeit public) foundation.

Business is business, whether for profit or not.   CEO skills can (and have) been used in charitable and philanthropic venues for decades.    Covenant House, for example, is a NY-based charity focused on homeless and/or impoverished youth that has already created “franchises” in 11 other states and several countries.  The same principles and methods that help for-profit corporations succeed also help non-profit organizations succeed:  hiring competent employees, aligning them with available resources to accomplish a worthy goal, then hire more employees and repeat.  (Sites like CharityNavigator.org outline a large number of organizations that employ a lot of people as well as efficiently provide valuable charity and services to those in need.  And it is a useful site for checking how charitable funds are used, encouraging efficiency and accountability.)

If Ashley and Will are smart, they’ll continue Nick’s work by hiring other people immediately and not worry so much about being “secret”.   Greater scope of charity, and meaningful jobs for those in need without having to accept “handouts”.

The subtext of Nick’s wealth (and inefficient use of that wealth) probably won’t matter for those looking for a simple, uplifting Christmas story, but does hurt the film’s applicability to general audiences.   Viewers will be reminded that service is important, especially in the Christmas season, but are provided by examples of service that will be largely beyond their capability to provide.  As a Christmas story of good people helping others, Christmas Angel is decent (if unremarkable); if only the details of the story didn’t rely on the giver being part of the proverbial 1% rather than the 99%.

Final Grade: B-