Review: The Last Eagle Scout

[Viewed January 27th, 2012 at the LDS Film Festival.  Screened version was described by the director as “95% complete”.]

Kels Goodman is a maverick filmmaker in any sense of the word. As writer (with Danna Tanner), director, producer, editor, and the sole financial sponsor, Goodman has been working on this “weekend warrior” project for most of the last decade, and The Last Eagle Scout is the culmination of a LOT of time, energy, and money.

Good for him.  Getting any film made is a tremendous undertaking, and the fact that he’s persisted through years of financial difficulties and production delays shows genuine courage and spirit — something that other LDS filmmakers can emulate.

We can almost forgive the rough edges in The Last Eagle Scout (and there are a lot of them) because of that maverick spirit.  Even beyond the raw production values (and occasionally laughable special effects) The Last Eagle Scout is deliberately designed to be provocative and politically incorrect.  The film will challenge viewers to accept Goodman’s ideology in the same fashion it challenges viewers to look past the low budget, and for many viewers forgiving the latter will be easier than the former.   How you ultimately respond to The Last Eagle Scout will depend on how you feel about Scouting in the first place.

Cliff Elliot (Nick Whitaker) is one of the few remaining Boy Scouts in the US, and is hurriedly working for his Eagle.  After a tragic accident (?) at scout camp, the government decrees the Boy Scouts of America must shut its doors forever, which leaves Cliff with a strict deadline for finishing his Eagle requirements and fulfilling his promise to his dad.

Not content with that basic premise, Goodman then kicks it up a notch by throwing in dark conspiracies at high levels of government, oppressive police squads enforcing political correctness, and a roaming terrorist who plants bombs in public restrooms.  After Cliff gets in trouble with the PC police for posting an American flag on public property, he goes on the run with his sister (Jaci Twiss from Rescued), using “The Last Eagle Scout” as his superhero / vigilante identity — standing up for Scouting when everything seems bleak.

We’re already over-the-top, but Goodman takes it over-the-top-of-the-top with random subplots about Cliff’s mom’s new boyfriend, a black and Indian sales team which seems to serve no purpose other than an elaborate red herring, and something involving Cliff’s favorite singer who is a supporter of the corrupt Congressman and for whom I could not explain the role he plays in the plot if I tried.  You’ll either admire Goodman’s audacity and insane spirit, or you’ll hate the random plotting and convoluted story.  Very little middle ground, I’d imagine.

As anticipated, Scouting forms a fundamental part of The Last Eagle Scout, and your opinion on the value of Scouting for young men today will influence your opinion on the film (or even if you view The Last Eagle Scout in the first place).  At the screening, Goodman was up front about his view that Scouting is “one of the last, great institutions for young men”.    Having that philosophy be the core of the film is fine.  The problem is: Goodman’s film requires the audience to have accepted his ideology about Scouting from the beginning, instead of actively defending it.  The film “presumes” rather than “persuades”.   Like last year’s 8:  The Mormon Proposition documentary, The Last Eagle Scout “preaches to the choir” — it reinforces the beliefs of those who walked into the theater with them, but will convince no one who didn’t.   In fact, if you don’t share Goodman’s high opinion of Scouting, elements of the film could be interpreted as a satire of Scouting itself (rather than the satire of liberal opinions on Scouting the filmmaker obviously intended.)

Let’s look at some of the details:

The film is set in 2012, although the setting clearly represents an alternative universe of sorts — one where “liberal” trends have taken hold throughout society and where “patriotic” organizations like the Boy Scouts are shunned and attacked.  Cliff and family contend with a variety of PC authority figures throughout the film, who go to great lengths to over-regulate everything, and worry constantly about “avoiding offense”.

Some of Goodman’s satirical targets hit their mark:

  • After Cliff’s sister breaks up with her boyfriend, he sues her in court for “emotional distress”…and wins.
  • Characters have a debate over what neutral name to call “Christmas”, or “Xmas”, or “the holidays”, or whatever in order to avoid offending or excluding anyone.
  • Schools and other public places have segregated “alternative food” zones (like smoking areas) for junk food eaters.
  • Massive over-regulation mandates things like wearing safety helmets for protection when showering.  (‘Won’t someone think of the children?’)

Definitely some clever ideas here.  However, other satirical targets miss the mark entirely.

The entire plot of the film is based on the Scouting program taking fire for “patriotism” — wearing American flags on their uniforms, and displaying flags in public locations.  (Is THAT why the Boy Scouts have attracted controversy in recent years?  I hadn’t noticed.  Note that the “g-word” that rhymes with “hay” does not appear in the film.)

This is a “straw man”.  Goodman has created an exaggerated alternate universe for satire purposes that doesn’t actually satirize what real-life Scouting opponents are saying.  You can’t do that, not without undercutting the credibility of one’s own position.  Creating fake arguments against Scouting to play defense against implies Scouting defenders don’t have any adequate responses to the real arguments.

Later, we are shown that a tragedy in Cliff’s family occurred when the PC police don’t allow a forest fire to be extinguished with lake water for environmental reasons.  (Note that this has no correlation with any known position or demand from any left-wing environmental advocacy group.  Nice to see you again, Mr. “Straw Man”.)

And so on.  Government-mandated “green” cars are shown to be unreliable and break down easily.  (Are electric or hybrid cars more likely to break down than “gas-guzzlers”?)  Basically, if you get a laugh at a sign that says “Global Warming:  It is the Law!”, then you’re probably the right audience for this film.  (And if you’re the type who asks, “What does that even MEAN?”, then you probably aren’t…)

While there is no direct church content in The Last Eagle Scout, the LDS connection with Scouting (and the LDS target audience) creates an odd subtext under some of the other satirical elements.

  • A sign reads “Bodily Management:  Knowing What’s Best For You!” (Which church makes a big deal about how many earrings a girl wears, again?)
  • One co-worker of Cliff’s sister gets mocked for constantly saying, “Stay inside the lines!”  (Didn’t we just study the iron rod and strait and narrow path from Lehi’s vision this last month?  Are we supposed to ‘stay inside the lines’ for safety as a spiritual principle or not?)
  • Cliff and his brother get called to the principal’s office after being bullied at school for wearing scout uniforms.  Cliff says, “We get attacked and somehow it’s now OUR fault?”  (Gay kids bullied at school ask the same question…)
  • Free speech is portrayed as superior to the PC crowd in The Last Eagle Scout who go out of their way to find words and social policies that won’t offend anyone.  (Are LDS not typically one of the more easily offended demographics today — whether through profane language, depictions of premarital sex on TV, jokes about polygamy, women wearing “immodest” clothes, etc?  Is typical LDS rhetoric more on the “lighten up, man!” side of free speech, or the propriety of being “offended” at anything going against LDS standards, big or small?  Who is Goodman satirizing here?)

I appreciate Goodman’s desire to be a little ‘in-your-face’, instead of playing it safe for a wider audience like other filmmakers.  However, this film’s satire is tied so tightly to one particular viewpoint, that viewers almost have no choice in the matter:  if you do not accept Goodman’s basic ideology, you won’t accept his film.  It deliberately keeps you at a distance and you’ll be less inclined to forgive the rough edges around the production or the all-over-the-place writing and plotting.  And you’ll scratch your head (if not feel genuine annoyance) at the constant mocking of “liberal” positions that bear little relationship to what “liberals” actually believe.

Ironically, if you’re not already on Goodman’s side of the aisle, the film itself does not defend the Scouting program very well, almost making the anti-Scouting side’s case for them:

  • Cliff’s “service project” for his Eagle (selling and putting up US flags in other people’s yards) doesn’t actually provide any “service” to people in need.
  • Other Scouting activities seen in the film — canoeing, hiking, wood-carving — look like fun but are not demonstrably character-building or vital for young men if the point is to show the importance of the Scouting program in young men’s lives.
  • When Cliff stares up at an empty flagpole and says, “It PAINS me so much to see it empty like that”, or when his Scout-leader-in-exile tells him with a straight face, “Now you see how IMPORTANT it is to get your Eagle!”, it’s almost a satire of Scouting itself, mocking the self-importance some hard-line Scouters put on their own program.

Goodman’s heart may be in the right place, but the film as constructed doesn’t do a good job of demonstrating Scouting’s value to the world, especially set in an alternate universe full of obvious straw men.

The fact is:  the current marriage between Scouting and the LDS Church in the US colors any debate of Goodman’s thesis.  Is it possible to ask whether Scouting is truly valuable for young men (versus unnecessary at best, or dangerous at worst) when many LDS assume this “marriage” is direct evidence Scouting is a divine program ordained by revelation, and that questioning Scouting’s role and value in developing young men is tantamount to apostasy?

The fact is: over half of LDS Church membership live in areas where there is no Scouting program.  And even in Utah, there are wards (the BYU Chinese Ward, for example, where I was in the Young Men’s Presidency) that do not participate in Scouting either.  Strangely, our young men still grew up, served missions, and became honorable adults even without that Scouting foundation.

The fact is: there is already a program in the Church that teaches young men to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent — it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ found in the scriptures.  Take away the common elements from the “values” of Scouting that aren’t already covered by basic gospel principles and we’re left with…camping and knot-tying?  (I will note that there are a few amusing scenes where Cliff’s knowledge of knot-tying helps him escape from bad guys.)

In the meantime, the current LDS association with Scouting acts as a lightning-rod for complaints about fund-raising and inequitable division of resources between programs for young men and young women — headaches that the Church doesn’t need.  Obviously, as long as the most senior member of BSA’s National Executive Board is Mormon (someone you may have heard of:  Thomas S. Monson), Scouting will continue to be tied to the LDS experience in the US, for better or worse.  The Last Eagle Scout could potentially be a catalyst for a serious discussion about the value of Scouting (or lack thereof), and whether this “marriage” should continue, but Goodman has stacked the deck a little too far in one direction to be a compelling part of that discussion.

It’s not really fair to tie judgment on The Last Eagle Scout to a judgment on Scouting itself, but the film almost doesn’t give you a choice.    If my ambivalence to the role of Scouting among the 21st century Church invalidates any such “review” of the film, then so be it.  A lot of the patrons at the LDS Film Festival screening certainly had a good time, and you might too.   (Although I suspect very nearly 100% of them walked into the theater already agreeing with Kels Goodman on the value of Scouting, so is that significant?)    If you’ve read this far into the article, I suspect you already know by now whether The Last Eagle Scout is for you, anyway.

Your Grade:  Anywhere from B+ to D (depending on your opinion of Scouting)

My Grade:  C