Billy: The Early Years: DVD Review
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Controversy or no controversy, Billy: The Early Years is a solid if unremarkable retelling of legendary evangelist Billy Graham’s formative years.
The controversy, if it can be called that, stems from Franklin Graham’s public statement when the movie was first released in theaters. He argued that it lacked his father’s passion of preaching and that many of the events depicted on film were embellished.
Further complicating matters, his sister, GiGi, has been supportive of the film telling various publications that she believes the movie is accurate and portrays her parents, Billy and Ruth Graham Bell, in a heartfelt manner.
The primary purpose of Billy is to provide viewers an early glimpse into the life of a young man who would be inspired by God to positively impact the lives of millions. Billy Graham was far from being perfect as several scenes attest. He and his father had a terse, sometimes tension filled relationship. He wanted nothing to do with organized religion during his teen years. He often doubted himself in the early years of his ministry.
Directed by former teen heartthrob Robby Benson (Ice Castles), the story is told through a series of clunky, often clichéd flashbacks from bed-ridden former evangelist Charles Templeton, played by Oscar award winning actor Martin Landeau (Ed Wood). Templeton was a contemporary of Billy Graham’s who often traveled and preached with him. Eventually, due to a lack of faith he left the ministry and became a devout atheist. In these scenes, Templeton recounts his early years with Billy Graham to a television crew whose purpose for being there is only vaguely revealed.
The movie would have worked just fine without these flashback scenes. They often just pop up unannounced, limiting the overall flow of the story.
Armie Hammer, the great grandson of noted industrialist Armand Hammer, turns in a credible portrayal as Billy Graham. While he looks nothing like the young Billy, it is evident that Hammer has worked hard to acquire the mannerisms and preaching style of the legendary evangelist.
Stefanie Butler plays Ruth Graham Bell with an honesty and flair that captures the essence of who Billy’s wife truly was and the role she played in his rise to prominence.
Other notable cast members include Lindsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman), who plays Billy’s mother and country music star Josh Turner (“Long Black Train”) who makes his acting debut as Billy’s musical counterpart George Beverly Shea.
With only one instance of profanity, Christian viewers will be delighted with the overall tone of the movie. There is no nudity, drinking, or drug use. The Christian faith is held in the highest regard and is authentic to protestant religious practices. It should be noted, however, there are graphic scenes of Holocaust victims as well as a badly injured young girl.
Where Billy really soars is through the use of music in a variety of scenes and transitional interludes. Featuring several notable artists including Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, and the aforementioned Turner, many old time Gospel standards give added flavor and dimension to what would otherwise be very ordinary scenes.
The Special Features portion of the DVD contains a behind the scenes-type featurette that is both informative to the viewer and does a commendable job in explaining the challenges that went into making the movie. Also featured is a DVD trailer for Billy and a trailer for an animated film called At Jesus Side. Conspicuously absent is an exclusive 2009 sermon by Billy Graham and a photo gallery that is billed prominently on the DVD’s packaging.
Early in the movie, Ruth provides Billy with a sage bit of wisdom: “If you are not willing to live your life for something greater than yourself than life is not worth living.” In his life, Billy Graham has followed this advice relentlessly in his pursuit to spread the Gospel message. “Billy: The Early Years” challenges viewers to do the same. For that reason alone, this is a movie worth seeing.
Writer Belinda Elliott contributed to this review.
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