NOTE: follow this link for my interview with David Leo Schultz, Brennan's director.
The weekend I watched Brennan the new biopic about the life of author/speaker Brennan Manning from director/writer/actor David Leo Schultz, was the same weekend we read the "Prodigal Son" passage from Luke 15 in my church. Jesus' parable of the son who squandered his inheritance through sinful and reckless living is a messy story, that ultimately is not about us at all—it is about the vast, unquenchable, and perplexing love of God. As a film, Brennan, starring Hal Alpert in the titular role, is equally as messy, centering around two real life prodigals wandering in the midst of their own journey, sometimes towards and sometimes away from the love of God.
In Brennan director Schultz does something that probably would not have worked in his previous biopic Ragamuffin which told the story of musician Rich Mullins: he gives us an intimate character study of the main character. Most biopics attempt a general biographical sketch of their central character(s), their depictions of time more sprawling, their stories more a summary than a comprehensive account of their lives. There is only so much you can tell about a person in 1.5 to 2 hours. People and events need to be condensed down and often re-ordered for maximum impact and understanding. Brennan, which does play around with the chronology and people in Brennan Manning's life, is nonetheless not attempting to be one of the more conventional biopics. It feels like a smaller story, one where we are allowed in close to the man himself.
Brennan Manning, the author, speaker, and former Roman Catholic priest was an iconoclast within both the Catholic and Evangelical worlds. He spoke and wrote tirelessly of the radical love of Jesus for us all. He preached against a bondage to legalism wherein we are tempted to earn God's love, favor, and salvation through our own merits. Manning, by most accounts (most especially Schultz's film), was also a complete wreck of a man. While some are troubled with Manning's pervading influence as an author/thinker, Schultz uses the author's absolute brokenness and damaging approach to relationships to shine a mirror back onto our own lives. This is about as ugly a depiction as we are going to get about someone as influential in Christian circles as Brennan Manning was. He is a perpetual drunk, he yells at and berates anyone when he does not immediately get his way, he threatens, he lies, and he manipulates. Through his behavior he loses his wife and he nearly loses all of his friends. And yet, this man can speak passionately—and despite his utter hypocrisy, no less sincerely—about God's love for us. Through his words Manning inspires us and breaks us open, showing each of us just how much we need God.
As a film Brennan does something strange: rather than give us a chronological narrative it offers a more impressionistic portrait of the man. We do not so much as learn everything that happened to him during his lifetime as we learn about Manning himself. Through its numerous long dialogues and a few sermons Brennan takes the message of Manning's books and projects them onto the two main characters of the film. Everything Manning ever said about accepting God's grace gets applied to his own life throughout the story. That is, the life of Brennan Manning becomes its own allegory. What Schultz has done is made the author into a parable.
The secret of Brennan is the narrative is actually centered on another character altogether, Jim English (played by Schultz), a down and out kind of guy who carries with him the burdens of his own past. Through a set of circumstances Manning befriends Jim and they take a road trip together, with Jim offering to take Manning back home to New Orleans when there are no available flights out of San Diego. Jim needs a friend and a father, and basically plays the part of a loyal puppy dog that takes all of Manning's abuse in exchange for a little love. Throughout the film it is fascinating to watch the Jim character, who, despite his hurt, is filled with lots of love and patience, continually coming back to Manning, first as a wounded seeker, but then as a friend seeking to serve, help, and protect this whirlwind of a man who has entered his life.
At the moment I do not have a good idea how much of the narrative is based on actual fact, though I do know it works in a number of events from Manning's life such as his divorce, a retreat/intervention from his friends, and what happened to him during Hurricane Katrina. These events though seem to be somewhat out of order as this article, written by Manning himself a couple of years before his death, would lead me to believe. I also do not know if Jim is a real character from Manning's life or a plot device invented to help tell the truth of the story rather than the facts of it. I will be interviewing David Leo Schultz next week, so hopefully we will find out more the story behind the story.
But quibbling over chronology is not the point of this film. This is the Parable of Brennan and it is in his own failures that we are to see our own brokenness. Hal Alpert is excellent as Manning. He conveys his anger and weariness equally as well as his affection and power as a public speaker. Alpert also plays a good straight man to Schultz's funny guy (Schultz, who has a comedy background, injects a lot more humor into this film than he did in Ragamuffin). The plot is meandering at times and it is not exactly clear how much time elapses between the road trip, the hurricane, or the ending, but again, what is most important in this story is the time and conversations shared between Manning and Jim. They both lay their lives bare before us, and in so doing lay out an ongoing challenge to us all: will we accept God's love or will we continue in our pride thinking we are good enough on our own? Brennan Manning was a not a perfect person and Brennan is not a perfect film but getting caught up in striving for perfection would be missing the point entirely. Only by acknowledging our imperfection, do we realize how much we desperately need the grace of God. This is a grace-filled film, showing us how God can redeem the time lost to every one of our screw-ups. Through Jim and Brennan Manning we see that God is closer than we know and is ready to make our lives new.
To see where Brennan is being shown around the country please visit:
To listen to my interview with the film's director, go here: http://www.postconsumerreports.com/2016/03/pcr-podcast-episode-10-david-leo.html
Please note that Brennan depicts adult conversations, a few minor curse words, intense arguing, and alcohol and cigarette use. It would most likely be a light PG-13 rating.
So...They Made a Movie About Rich Mullins...
Movie Review: Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins
Interview: David Leo Schultz on Directing the Rich Mullins Movie (text version)