2023, Movies

Praying for Armageddon (2023, Tonje Hessen Schei, Michael Rowley)

Apparently there is a term in investigations called “scope creep”; the longer the investigation goes, the greater the scope of the investigation and the more unfocused it is on its initial target. Well, this film about US evangelicals funding Israeli settlers to bring about Armageddon suffers from something like scope creep. There is just too much stuff in it. And that’s a shame, because the point is one people like me need to be reminded of.

The film begins focusing on a minor preacher, who rides around the US on a motorcycle appealing to the less fortunate. Then it jumps to following an Intercept reporter around DC and Texas as he attempts to gotcha Republican politicians and the preachers who support them. And then it expands to include much more. The opening is edited pretty aggressively and, for the first little bit, I was ready to call the film “over directed.” The style calms down as the film goes, but there is still way too much stuff here.

The motorcycle preacher is apparently here to to contras the two sides of the evangelical movement – the people who care about money, power and influence and the ones that don’t (or don’t have it) – but he actually doesn’t have a lot to do with the main thrust of the movie. Similarly, there is time spent literally following around this Intercept journalist or watching him look at architecture with narration over top, that feels superfluous (even when that narration is sometimes critical to the film). I’m not sure whether either of these two threads needed to be pursued for the entire film, as there are others that are more interesting. Moreover, especially the stuff with the reporter feels repetitive.

And that’s what makes this movie frustrating. There are snippets of compelling interviews and there are scenes that I think everyone needs to see. An example of the latter is the footage of Palestinians being forcibly removed from their homes by random Israeli dudes who are then backed up by police or military. (Watching children forced to say things about defending the state of Israel at a Christian rally in Kansas is a lot less unpleasant but still pretty icky.) And there are moments when the film itself – not just its found footage – is extremely power, such as when a US preacher is shown gleefully preaching destruction contrasted with missile strikes that his organization is essentially endorsing and encouraging.

The political and financial power in the US of the people who want a strong Israel to get in a war with another country in the Middle East is indeed something we should all be scared of. And, at times, this film does a good job of scaring us. But too often it is unfocused, or repetitive, or seemingly at the mercy of events that happened while the film was being made.

The topic deserves a better movie. As does at least one of the topics the film mentions in passing – the radicalization of parts of the US military.


PS: When I initially wrote this review I forgot to mention what seemed like a fairly significant error: during at least two scenes in the film, people are speaking Arabic with no subtitles. (Also there might have been a scene with Hebrew and no subtitles but I no longer remember.) The film is otherwise in English though Schei is Norwegian. Nobody explains what is said in Arabic after it is said. I don’t know if this was a deliberate artistic choice or a mistake in rushing the film to release but it feels like a pretty major error that also kept me from giving the film higher marks.

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