When a film covers someone’s real life, oftentimes what audiences see onscreen is far from something that can fit into a neat little box. Life is messy. And, few lives have been quite as chaotic as Sam Childers, the subject of Machine Gun Preacher. Gerard Butler portrays Childers and takes us from his drug-addled past, through recovery, finding God and being moved by a sermon at his church by a minister who had just returned from Africa. Next thing Sam knew, he left his wife and daughter behind and went to Africa to help those in need. What he discovered there would not only change his life, but also save the lives of thousands of children in the Sudan, an area ripped apart by civil war and strife.
In Machine Gun Preacher, the grotesque violence being committed on mothers, fathers and children in Sudan villages is brought front and center by director Marc Forster in the film's opening moments. Then, he swings his camera back to Pennsylvania and introduces us to Butler capturing the swagger of Childers exiting prison. As Butler begins his journey to salvation and saving onscreen he gives himself an enormous character arc to traverse given the viewer’s knowledge of what Sam Childers does in Africa. He is not nice to anyone including his best friend Donnie (Michael Shannon), his wife (Michelle Monaghan) or his daughter (Madeline Carroll).
It speaks volumes to Butler and his talent that the sweeping story is compelling. When Butler as Childers gets to Africa and sees the horror with his own eyes, a tidal wave of character change is emitted by the actor. All the moments of his life have led to this and now, at this moment, he is the man who must make a difference.
Some have said that Machine Gun Preacher does not know what type of movie it wants to be. Given that this is Childers’ story, and it is well documented, what you have is an addict’s finding sobriety movie. It is a biker film, war flick and action thriller. There are large swaths of a religious-themed film in there as well. That is because that is Childers’ life. Routinely in Africa, his orphanages he built and maintained would come under attack. Always, Childers would grab a machine gun and fight the enemy off. Yes, he was addicted to drugs. Affirmative, he became a preacher. That tapestry is a life, and therefore Machine Gun Preacher is all of those genres of films, wrapped into one look at the life of one man who has done extraordinary things to help humankind.
There are a few cringe-worthy lines in Machine Gun Preacher -- unfortunately, many have to be uttered by the always awesome Monaghan. In real life, Childers' orphanages flourished and saved thousands of lives. After watching the film, one wonders how they could have survived without his presence. But, that is little concern when it’s within the confines of a film that puts the spotlight on the age-old question: What can one person do? Apparently, help move heaven and earth.