In tour of evangelical USA, more oddballs than insights
In HBO's "Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi," which premieres tonight at 9, Red State America is an Oz theme park and evangelical Christians are its munchkins.
With filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi as our guide, we visit the Christian Wrestling Foundation and a fighter named Jesus Freak. How cute. We espy the car club Cruisers for Christ; we stop at a drive-through church for a prayer deposit; we take in Biblical Miniature Golf, including a course called Parting of the Red Sea.
We glimpse evangelical Elvis.
We also go to stadiums packed with evangelicals crying joyously, while preachers urge them to reject gay marriage and stem-cell research and become values voters. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Unfortunately, this documentary may ultimately say more about the insulated Blue Stater behind the camera than the Red Staters in front of it. Pelosi, the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, appears to want us to roll our eyes at the kooky kitsch of evangelical life and tremble at the sight of its preachers' power. She simply seeks out easy targets for her ridicule and fear, and underscores them with countless images of roadside billboards such as "Evolution is from the Devil."
Meanwhile, Pelosi is closed off to the people whose lives she is dismissing with quips such as "They're all so happy." She has little of the documentarian's curiosity about her, and too much of the outsider's contempt.
The fundamentalist world adjacent to the shopping malls of middle America is, indeed, fascinating to those of us who weren't raised there. If Pelosi weren't cruising so blithely through it all, if she were willing to listen more closely to its denizens, "Friends of God" could have offered an extraordinary view of the voting bloc that politicians court so passionately, and that many of us fear so deeply.
Her interviews with the likes of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and conservative Christian comic Brad Stine are superficial, as though Pelosi is merely pulling a string to get them to say what we all expect them to say and nothing more. What's going on in the minds of the pierced teens who are "high on Jesus"? Our fashionably cynical narrator doesn't seem to care. And she tends to film her subjects with an in-your-face shooting style that make them appear a little exaggerated and absurd.
The most interesting scenes in "Friends of God" are Pelosi's interviews with the Rev. Ted Haggard, which took place very shortly before he was publicly disgraced for gay sexual encounters . At one point, Haggard boasts, "All the surveys say that evangelicals have the best sex life of any other group." It's one creepy moment among many in which he flaunts his holy pride, unaware that he will fall. His speech about how "telling the truth is better than telling a lie" rings especially hollow.
Pelosi's "Alexandra in Wonderland" point of view worked much better in her previous HBO documentary, "Journeys With George." On the campaign bus with George Bush, she let Bush be Bush and enabled us to see the soon-to-be president at his least guarded and silliest. As he became amused by Pelosi during the months of campaigning, he was disarmed. In "Friends of God," Pelosi's personality quirks only get in the way of her material. This time out, she travels and yet she never really seems to leave home.