Last night was the first of two documentary specials that Helen Whitney has written and directed on the history, beliefs, practices, and controversies surrounding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I watched the first two hours of The Mormons last night and was impressed overall, though as usual I have a few quibbles.
First, a bit of background. I am one of the people Helen has been talking to for the last two and a half years, off and on, both in person and over the phone (though not on camera, thankfully). I've come to like and respect Helen very much, which you should bear in mind as you read this review. Perhaps you should take it with a grain of salt. My sympathies are basically with her, both because she tried her best as a filmmaker, pleasing two impossibly diverse constituencies (PBS executives and faithful Mormons), and because I co-wrote that Dummies book on Mormonism and know firsthand how very hard it is to pull it all together in a balanced way. That's a pretty darn hard row to hoe.
Yesterday I spoke with Helen's good friend and college roommate (who works in religion publishing -- small world, eh?), who told me that Helen has been "devastated" by PBS's final cut of the movie. Helen apparently found it overly critical of the Church and fought hard to keep the perspectives of active, faithful Mormons. So I was expecting the first part of the documentary to be fairly muckraking. This opinion was also strengthened by the comments I heard from two conservative Mormons in the weeks before the special aired. They had seen portions of it and found it lacking. So, I was primed to be greatly disappointed.
But I found it to be generally well-balanced, with multiple points of view showing that even among Mormons, there is a great deal of diversity about historical issues. Yes, an enormous amount of time was given to the Mountain Meadows Massacre (nearly 20 minutes out of just under 2 hours of historical material). However, I disagree with those Mormons who are out there pontificating today about it being far too much. It takes time to do MMM right -- you have to position it in the context of the Utah War and the fanatical period known as the Mormon Reformation, which the documentary did. You have to provide various points of view, from Will Bagley's overconfident assertion that Brigham Young ordered the attack (despite the absence of any extant documentary evidence for it from a leader whose every sneeze was duly noted in the logs) to the Church's position that Young's “mistake was to stir up some emotions which got out of control, but he didn’t order it done, and he didn’t condone it.” All in all, I think that MMM was handled respectfully and thoroughly. (Maybe my perspective is different on this issue than other Mormons'. My husband's ancestors come from the same sparsely populated Arkansas county as the ill-fated Fancher party. It is more likely that he is distantly kin to some of the victims than it is that he is not. It kind of changes one's perspective.)
In fact, I think the doc let the Church off easy in terms of the cover-up afterward. THAT is what we actually have the documentation to prove, and other than mentioning that a cover-up occurred, the doc didn't go into detail about how elaborately and thoroughly the Church lied about MMM for decades. In all, I was glad to see that this most shocking and horrifying event in Mormon history was not trivialized or whitewashed. It is time for the truth, which the Church seems to feel also, since the Historical Department will soon release all of the documents related to MMM.
Polygamy, on the other hand, was bizarrely handled. Polygamy was such an important part of the Mormon experience, both as a catalyst for social cohesion and as a bedrock of 19th-century Mormon theology, that it should have received more attention. Instead, almost half the total time devoted to polygamy was given over to contemporary polygamists. I guess it was just irresistible for a filmmaker who was offered the chance to go behind-the-scenes of a modern polygamous family, even though that has such a tenuous and contested relationship to 21st-century orthodox Mormonism. So, while I disagree with some fellow critics who argue that polygamy got too much attention--it didn't get enough, in my opinion--I do think the focus should have been on polygamy in actual Mormon history, rather than a peep show of how "Mormon fundamentalists" live today. (Still, I confess I was intrigued by them. Was that wine the adults were drinking? How come they get to drink wine?! I am jealous!)
My biggest issues with the doc were editorial. There were some choppy, unfortunate transitions here and there, the worst of which was when Terryl Givens was speaking about the theological rationale of Mormon dancing. We’re burying our children in the frozen prairie during the trek west, and then . . . we’re dancing! Terryl’s thoughts on Mormons and dancing were right on target – brilliant, even – but they seemed totally out of place in the middle of this section on the dangers and heartbreaks of the Mormon trail. After the brief interlude of dancing, we were back on the trail. This section was very poorly edited, if not downright bipolar.
Also, some of the closeup camera angles were just too much. Only the gorgeous Sally Gordon has a face that can stand up to that kind of scrutiny; most historians were designed for radio. Pull back! Pull back!
The talking heads all did well. I was surprised that Richard Bushman got so little play about Joseph Smith, but his comments were astute and incisive, as always. I was thrilled to see Kathleen Flake shine. Kathleen has got to be the smartest Mormon woman of all time. And there was a fine coterie of non-Mormon scholars, including Sally, Harold Bloom, Jon Butler, and some thoughtful ruminations from evangelical heavyweight Richard Mouw. But where was Jan Shipps?
I won't be blogging about the second half, I don't think. I've been pretty busy lately and seem to be suffering from adult-onset ADHD -- hey, what's that shiny thing? Anyway, my next post is going to be about Harry Potter and all our theories for book 7. Be getting yours ready to share . . . .