Review: Day of Defense (D)

Day-of-DefenseThere’s a long-standing anonymous quote that says: “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

Day of Defense puts a literal spin on that scenario, featuring a “trial” of two LDS missionaries who are called upon to defend their Christianity in court.  Day of Defense – based on a non-fiction book by A. Melvin McDonald — was originally released in 2003, and re-released to DVD and Amazon Instant Viewing in 2012.

Elders Burke and Davis are assigned to the small town of Marysville, and immediately run afoul of a town ordinance prohibiting “preaching without a license”.  Since ‘preaching licenses’ are only given out by the “Christian Town Council” and the CTC doesn’t consider Mormons to be Christians, they are forbidden from tracting or contacting.  Through circumstances too ridiculous to describe, the two elders are assigned a reluctant public defender and ordered by the local judge to defend their “Christianity” in court against CTC members who grill them about differences between LDS doctrine and the Bible.

Day of Defense is notable for receiving an “F” grade from then-Utah Valley movie critic Eric D. Snider, who didn’t mince words:

As the single worst Mormon-themed movie so far – a record that I hope stands for a long time – “Day of Defense” should be considered an embarrassment not just to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but to film-goers in general. In fact, even non-film-goers – even obscure humans who have never set foot in a movie theater – ought to be dismayed that a movie of this caliber was created by their fellow man…Based on an unworkable premise, written with an irredeemably bad ear for dialogue, enacted by seemingly untalented performers, and shot in many too-dark rooms on cheap-looking digital video, this is a film of astounding badness. It is jaw-droppingly, paralyzingly, laughably bad.

Well, now…  That summation alone almost piqued my curiosity, considering I’ve seen a lot of bad LDS films myself.   And indeed: The acting is terrible, the writing worse, but unfortunately Day of Defense isn’t bad enough even to be entertaining in a “car accident” kind of way.  It’s simply dull.  In much of the movie literally nothing happens, and when something does happen it’s really, really dumb.  The movie stretches over 100 minutes when it doesn’t have enough content to fill 30.

Day of Defense’s badness isn’t even suitable for MST3K-style mocking, even though there are elements that are just begging for it:  the laughable dialogue from “lawyers” unfamiliar with how legal proceedings actually work, or the amateur Photoshop job on the DVD cover, with all the main characters draped in shadow like it’s secretly a horror film.  Even the ‘trial’ elements — ostensibly the only purpose of the film’s existence — aren’t useful as an informative tool for prospective missionaries.  It’s barely more adequate than staring at a blank wall for 100 minutes.

A basic problem:  Day of Defense is a non-fiction book, written by McDonald from a personal compilation of common arguments he and his brother heard from other Christians while on their missions in the late ’50′s, along with LDS scriptural rebuttals.  The use of the ‘courtroom’ setting was a framing device for the dialogue and debates, but the book had no real story or plot.  It’s possible to create a compelling film from a non-fiction book (Mean Girls, for example) provided the filmmakers are creative in attaching an appropriate story.   But set in the 21st century, there is no “appropriate” story for Day of Defense’s premise:  two missionaries would never be put on trial in a US courtroom in any US city for “not being Christian” — hello, ‘separation of church and state’ — nor would a “preaching license” ever be required.  This is a scene out of some left-wing theocratic nightmare, not reality.

Premises have the right to be “unrealistic” if filmmakers support it properly, but Day of Defense doesn’t even bother setting up a plausible scenario for its story.  The film makes us accept the premise completely on faith…but then ends with the missionaries’ lawyer arguing that the trial is a farce and the CTC shouldn’t be putting supposed “Christians” on trial in the first place.    (Of course not!  They never would have been able to in the first place!  C’mon, movie, you can’t expect people to accept your completely ridiculous premise on faith and then argue in the film itself that the premise is completely ridiculous!)

Even ignoring the story, the religious angle proves to be just as meaningless.  In the (brief) courtroom scenes, the CTC argues that the LDS Church doesn’t meet their three criteria for “Christians”:  belief in the Trinity, belief in salvation by grace, and belief in Christ’s resurrection.  (I have no idea where that last one comes from, and the movie apparently doesn’t either since it drops it after its first mention, and it isn’t brought up again.)  For their “defense” the missionaries and their public defender bring up other Biblical references that suggest interpretations closer to the LDS ones.  And they argue that the CTC doesn’t have the authority to definitively define “Christian” in the first place.

Note here that the only question Day of Defense seems intent on answering is “Are Mormons Christians?”, and its answer is “it depends on your definition of ‘Christian’”.  Not only does that sidestep the real question (“Why should we believe in your church and your doctrines even if you are Christian?”) but in 2013 — or even in 2003 when the film was released — this question isn’t as relevant as the filmmakers think.   Perhaps fifty years ago, when both Elder McDonalds were on their mission, answering the “Mormons == Christians?” question was of greater importance given American demographics at the time, but today churches of all flavors are facing “competition” not from each other, but the agnostic/atheist/”churchless” camps.   (As a data point:  informal surveys have indicated that over 90% of those who leave the LDS faith end up in one of those three categories, with a chunk of the rest ending up in Buddhism or other Eastern philosophies.  Very few are actually heading to other Christian churches in their search for “truth”, indicating that issues like “Trinity vs. Godhead” aren’t foremost in people’s minds when considering their religious path.)

In many cases the answer to “Are Mormons Christian?” is now:  Who cares?   Today’s missionaries may still hear debates on The Trinity and salvation by grace, depending on their location, but the primary missionary question of “why should I believe in your church?” now covers such a wider scope of topics and human experience that just listing Biblical references in support of the Godhead doesn’t count as “missionary preparation” when missionaries will be among people who don’t know why they should believe in the Bible either.

Basically, Day of Defense fails badly as a compelling movie, but also fails as a useful and relevant tool to prepare missionaries for arguments they’ll hear in the field.  It’s not only poorly executed, but poorly conceived, without asking the fundamental question of whether the handful of points raised in a non-fiction book written fifty years ago are still relevant to today’s LDS audience.  Perhaps a better scenario would have the filmmakers being put on trial in a mock court to be grilled about why they made Day of Defense in the first place.

Final Grade: D

Notes and Other Comments:

(1) Now, I’ve seen a lot of LDS films, and since local films tend to use the same pool of local actors, I found it odd (and perhaps telling in a bad way) that I didn’t recognize a single person within the top dozen billed actors and actresses in Day of Defense.  Either the filmmakers were forced to dip into the C- or D-levels of LDS actors for casting (which would explain the terrible acting across the board), or Day of Defense was so damaging to those actors’ careers that they never worked again, even in subsequent LDS films.

(2) There are many dumb plot points in Day of Defense, but the dumbest is probably the devout Christian woman who suddenly becomes sympathetic to the LDS missionaries when her child dies…as if there were no comforting doctrines about the afterlife to be found in traditional Christianity to ease her pain.

(3) A. Melvin McDonald’s original Day of Defense has now apparently been renamed In Defense of Truth and is available in PDF form for free here.  Coincidentally, there is a new Day of Defense book coming out later this year — unrelated to the original, other than serving the same purpose of answering common questions about the LDS faith.