Abigail Disney’s new documentary, The Armor of Light, juxtaposes two extremely ‘hot-button’ subjects into one examination. The first and more urgent topic is that of gun control and our country’s spiraling regression into medieval times where every argument or mental breakdown seems to be solved through random violence, perpetrated often on innocent victims. The second is the place of faith and religion’s role in not only speaking out about these concerns, but actively trying to create a healthy discussion within church walls about our second amendment rights. Tough topics indeed, but it’s troubling and a bit disappointing that The Armor of Light is disjointed and unconvincing on either topic.
Initially focusing on Reverend Robert Schenck and his quick rise to religious prominence after leading abortion protests in the early 90’s, he’s come to an ethical and moral crossroads in his beliefs. Living and working in Washington D.C. and being the adviser to many rich and powerful Conservative leaders, his outlook is shaken after the September 2013 massacre in the Washington Naval Yard and other notable mass shootings around the country. Taking place just minutes from his home (while also struggling with the face-to-face memories of the 2006 killing of five Amish girls in Pennsylvania) Schenck slowly begins to integrate conversations about gun ownership and violence with fellow parish leaders and organizational meetings. Like everyone else sharply divided in our society, it’s a conversation that usually ends up with red faces and people talking the same rhetoric.
Next we meet Lucia McBath. The mother of Jordan Davis, a 17 year old African-American boy shot and killed in 2012 after becoming involved in an argument with an armed man over the volume of his car radio player, McBath takes up the anti-gun rallying cry. Not only does she become a national spokesperson for Moms Demand Action, but her sorrowful path and that of Reverend Schenck eventually merge in supportive ways as both wander through their mixed emotions and public presence in this heated national debate.
As a first time filmmaker, Disney has chosen a potent subject and the people involved often hit the right notes of grace, humility and intelligent design. Yet, The Armor of Light strangely fails to elicit any new emotions or perspective on its thorny ideals. It raises a lot of questions but, perhaps because both McBath and Schenck are still on their path to gun control enlightenment, never really does more than ask them.
Schenck’s episode, especially, feels like a snippet of something gestating and ill formed. The camera shows him talking and beginning heated conversations with all types of people, but never moves beyond his petri dish theatrics. Also disappointing is that when the film detours into one of the more interesting aspects of Schenck’s life- i.e. vaguely tracing the intertwined roots of evangelical faith with Ronald Reagan’s 1980’s presidential campaign- it starts to pulse in a historical/political manner before quickly returning back to Schenck’s modern day sojourn where more people talk and little is achieved.
Less theological and rigid than Schenck’s portion (complete with perfectly framed image of him and the brightly lit capital building outside a car window) is McBath’s portion. Of course, her story is the emotional one in which an innocent life has been lost by random, senseless violence, but it’s more than that. Tackling the idea of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which initially resulted in a mistrial of the accused first degree murder charge in her son’s trial, The Armor of Light is sharp and focused in its treatise. Here, we finally see some movement and reason to document. Her courage in speaking out about her son’s death gives the film its strength lacking in the other half.
I’ve often said it before, but documentary filmmaking is one of the toughest forms of cinema to embrace. Our world views and preconceived emotions are typically either confirmed or aggravated by the subject at hand. We hardly ever pacify ourselves with a good documentary. They poke, prod, enlighten and educate. The Armor of Light should be seen for the challenging subjects it presents but I only wish it did one of the above mentioned actions a little better.
The Armor of Light opens on Friday, October 30 at AMC Grapevine 30 and AMC Mesquite 30.