Review: The Saratov Approach (B+)

The Saratov ApproachIn March of 1998, Elders Andrew Propst and Travis Tuttle arrived at a supposed teaching appointment in Saratov, Russia.   Instead of investigators, they were attacked, bound, and gagged by two gunmen, who transported them to a remote location to be held for ransom…and possibly a snowy grave.

The Saratov Approach is a dramatization of their five day ordeal, written and directed by Garrett Batty (Scout Camp), and starring Corbin Allred (Saints & Soldiers) and Maclain Nelson (One Good Man) as the two missionaries.  The Saratov Approach can be seen in theaters starting October 9, 2013.

The Saratov Approach is straight-forward and effective, owing to good direction and pacing from Batty — a significant step up from his previous film.  Saratov’s biggest success is its ability to create suspense and drama given (a) the structure of the story involves five days of sitting in a small house doing nothing, and (b) most everyone already knows the story has a ‘happy ending’.    (Even if you didn’t follow the story at the time, the real Propst and Tuttle have been promoting their story in person during the last year.  Even the movie poster gives away the ending!)

Yes, Allred and Nelson are far too old to be playing 20-year-old missionaries — Allred is 34 and balding! — but that’s the only nitpick as the two actors offer strong performances.  The two companions alternate between being “the panicky one” and “the calm one” at first, and (as they have lots of ‘free time’ trapped in the apartment) end up conversing a lot.   They have confrontational conversations about their chances at survival (noting that there are logical reasons why the Church wouldn’t pay ransoms for missionaries as a policy).  They have mundane conversations about sports, intimate conversations about why they went on a mission, and targeted conversations with their captors, with the idea that developing a relationship might make them harder to kill in the end.  Their two Russian counterparts (Alex Veadov and Nikita Bogolyubov) are also effective:  Sergei the boss is equal parts unhinged and calculating, while Nikolai the young underling is quite obviously in over his head.

The Saratov Approach could have been only a circumstantially LDS film — a kidnapping story that just happened to involve LDS missionaries — and in the hands of a non-LDS director it may have been.  In Batty’s hands, the missionary work and spirituality aspects of the story are more heavily emphasized.  Propst and Tuttle talk at length before and during their captivity about the joys of missionary work and “spending all your energy doing good”.  Tuttle recites the text of the first missionary discussion several times, first to ward off nervousness, but later in earnest to teach their captors about God’s love.   Batty adds (arguably superfluous) scenes in the US with Propst and Tuttle’s LDS families as they pray and wait for news.    (A non-LDS director may have spent this time instead on Sergei and Nikolai’s back story, perhaps.)  The film makes multiple references to Luke 22 (Christ suffering in the Garden) which leads to some parallels between the missionaries’ parents being willing to “sacrifice their sons” and the sacrifice of the Savior.  (I thought this metaphor was a little forced and over-the-top, but your mileage may vary.)

Other than a valentine to missionary work, the deeper spiritual message The Saratov Approach tries to present isn’t clear — perhaps the only real questionable aspect of a decent film.   After their capture, Tuttle laments not heeding his inner warning not to go to the appointment (“I felt it, the quiet voice!”) — potentially a dangerous message, implying that the Lord always warns LDS missionaries of trouble, and therefore victims of accidents or violent crime are partly to blame for “not listening to the Spirit”.

However, later, the two missionaries get free of their handcuffs and have a solid plan in place to subdue their captor and escape.  Propst backs down at the last minute, though and — in arguably the most problematic scene — deliberately puts his handcuffs back on, content instead to sit and wait, leaving his fate in the hands of his captors.  All apparently because “Heavenly Father has prepared a plan for us.”  (So…why the warning of the “small voice” at the beginning?  Was it God’s “plan” for them to be captured or not?)

The idea of meekly accepting one’s fate without struggling — throwing everything into God’s hands — is presented so directly here, one has to believe this is Batty’s core theme.  But would this still have been the identified lesson had the missionaries successfully subdued their captor and escaped — or been killed in the end without ever trying?  Or would it have changed to “God helps those who help themselves”, or “Listen to the Holy Ghost’s warnings to avoid harm” respectively?  The missionaries tell their captor in great sincerity, “God doesn’t control what we choose to do” but the implied suggestion that God controls everything that happens to us as part of a “master plan” isn’t that different.  (The missionaries talk at the end about how God gave them this experience to help them grow as people…which would make those hesitations at the beginning promptings from Satan then?)

One suspects there is “confirmation bias” at play here, where the lesson changes based on the result, not on the situation.  This wouldn’t be the first nor the last LDS-themed message that proposes that “God guides the righteous through the Holy Spirit to make good choices and avoid struggles” and “God lets righteous people struggle to help them grow as individuals” despite the seeming contradiction, and Batty’s film doesn’t delve into the spiritual implications enough to help navigate this paradox.

And perhaps there’s no need.  The movie is effective enough at face value, and viewers will read into the spiritual message whatever they will without needing the film to explain the mysteries of the plan of salvation.  However, The Saratov Approach is coming out during a bad year for missionary safety, albeit not largely because of random violence.  The film stops short of saying “The Lord will always deliver his righteous servants from harm”, although that message is still implied.  I doubt Propst and Tuttle (nor their families) would support the notion that the two of them were somehow ‘more righteous’ than other missionaries who died on their missions, which would have explained their deliverance relatively unharmed.  However, common rhetoric about the hand of God in all things causes those questions to be asked.    The spiritual elements of The Saratov Approach are best founded when showing missionaries and their families taking comfort in prayer and the inner knowledge that they are children of God.  Deeper subjects about the role of divine intervention in the creation or resolution of missionary tribulations, not as much.

The LDS elements and emphasis may prevent The Saratov Approach from finding a significant non-LDS audience, but there’s nothing preventing anyone from enjoying this tense kidnapping story, that’s well-written, well-directed, and well-acted.

Final Grade: B+

Additional Notes and Comments:

(1) The end titles note that Propst and Tuttle didn’t talk to each other for 12 years after their missions — a surprising fact, perhaps, although one or both probably felt contact with the other would just be a trigger for bad memories.

(2) The film is a quote-unquote “true story”, which doesn’t mean details haven’t been altered for dramatic effect.  Compare the real-life Tuttle and Propst’s description of their captors releasing them versus the more dramatic ‘inches from death before a miraculous change of heart’ version in the film.  Or their dramatic entrance into the LDS sacrament meeting after they are released just as a speaker is reciting the “no unhallowed hand can stop the work” speech.  Some news reports claimed one of the kidnappers was actually LDS (albeit inactive) — an interesting element that the film chooses not to explore.

(3) I did like the small segment before the missionaries’ capture when they return home and see a neighbor who’s desperate for a smoke and asks the elders for a light.   Tuttle says no, but Propst says yes and hands him a lighter — “being a good neighbor” he says, and the neighbor responds by inviting them over for a discussion later.  A tangential but interesting anecdote about ends versus means in missionary work.