Both the story of the young Billy Graham and the latest in a long line of recent Christian-themed films, Robby Benson’s Billy: The Early Years takes a different approach than Fireproof, the recent Christian king of the box office. Instead of the out-and-out proselytizing of Fireproof, Billy is more measured in that it’s able to be whatever the viewer wants it to be. If you want it to be a tract on the glories of Christianity, it can be read that way. If you just want it to be a movie about a man and his faith, then it can be that, too.
The film is told through a series of flashbacks via Billy’s longtime friend and former evangelist Charles (Martin Landau, in one of those Ben Kingsley or Peter O’Toole work-for-hire roles where he gets to lie down the entire film), who tells about Billy’s (Armie Hammer) early years to a group of reporters from his hospice bed. Here, Graham is seen from his days as an aspiring baseball player to born-again Christian to college student to evangelist to husband.
It quickly becomes obvious that Benson (who’s probably best known as the voice of the Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991)) has cut his directorial teeth in the realm of sitcoms like Ellen and Friends. Oddly, much of the movie is played like a broad comedy, the kind usually found on television (I kept being reminded of what I once heard someone call the “Chandler Bing-ing of America”).
And while the format can occasionally become grating, it’s almost refreshing, simply because the movie isn’t weighed down in the phony, self-important reverence that often plagues biopics. Instead of Billy Graham the figure, we get a look at Billy Graham the man, no matter how goofy he may come across within the confines of the film and its brand of humor. It certainly helps that the cast—who, aside from Landau and Lindsay Wagner, are all unknowns—is generally, and surprisingly, personable and at ease on screen.
And while all these are pluses, the film is ultimately constrained by its painfully low budget. The occasional stylistic flourishes by Benson—such as a transition from the present to a flashback that superimposes the two—appear awkward due to the limitations of the film’s special effects. This is especially true during the film’s final scene, when some green-screen clouds and blurry video of a crowd become a distraction from the movie’s final point.
It’s a pity, too, since periodically the film tries to transcend both its monetary and genre limitations. It’s not every day a Christian film comes out in which the very William Peter Blatty-esque question is asked of how a just God could allow so much pain and suffering in the world. It’s a game attempt, but one that falls short. In its defense, the failure is not from the wrong-headedness that plagues most such films, but from overreaching the paucity of its budget and the inherent constraints of the form. Rated PG for thematic material, including some disturbing images, brief language and smoking.