“Billy: The Early Years”

Last night we went to a screening for pastors of “Billy: The Early Years,” about the early life and ministry of Billy Graham. It was at Second Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the country, so I was expecting a big crowd. There were only about a dozen people present.

The movie, directed by Robby Benson, is a mixed bag. The parts that feature Billy himself are at times hilarious (with touches of unexpected slapstick) and moving. Armie Hammer gives a remarkable portrayal. Josh Turner is woefully underutilized as George Beverly Shea.

One of the funniest scenes (for me) was a confrontation between Billy and Bob Jones, Sr.; Billy, a first year student at Bob Jones College, is wondering why asking questions isn’t allowed in class–his dad had encouraged him to ask questions. Jones says, “I’ve already asked all the questions that can be asked. You’re getting my answers. That’s why this is called ‘Bob Jones’ College, and not ‘Billy Graham’ College.” Benson highlights the difference by having Jones and Graham at opposite ends of a long table, Jones shaded in darkness, upward camera angles, all suggestive of a cartoon rather than a typical bio pic.

The framework of the story is a deathbed interview with Charles Templeton, a former associate of Graham’s who became a famous agnostic. Played by Martin Landau in a creepy, over the top way, these scenes add nothing at all to the story, and are a distraction. Without these scenes, I would have raved about the film; with them, I’m lukewarm.

The screeners gave each person a hardback copy of the ESV Bible and a publicity kit.