It isn’t altogether easy to watch the seven-part series “Under the Banner of Heaven,” for multiple reasons.
The main storyline follows the investigation into the unbelievably horrifying 1984 murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter in American Fork. The look into the Lafferty family — including the killers, Ron and Dan Lafferty — is deeply disturbing.
The pacing is deliberate and the plot is dense. You have to pay attention — you can’t watch this while you’re scrolling on your phone. But it all adds up to a textured, 7½ hour story that is more than just a true-crime drama. It’s the story of faith gone wrong and devotion turned to violence in the context of family and church history.
And, for Utahns and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it hits home — hard.
Writer/executive producer/showrunner Dustin Lance Black struggled to bring “Banner” to the screen for more than a decade. In 2011, it was announced that he would write and fellow Oscar winner Ron Howard would direct a theatrical movie based on Jon Krakauer’s book, but he could never figure it out because there was just too much story to tell. “I was coming up with 300-and 400-page scripts” for a medium in which “110 is good, 200 is ridiculous, 300 — forget it, kid,” said Black, who won a screenwriting Oscar for “Milk” in 2009.
Howard agreed. “We worked very hard on it for years,” he said, but they were “blocked” because “we couldn’t tell the entire story.” Eventually, “we all looked at each other and said, ‘maybe we should find a home for this at a company where we wouldn’t have to edit.’”
That Black kept trying for so long to get “Under the Banner of Heaven” made speaks to his passion for the project.
“No one hangs on to something for 10 years unless it’s really meaningful to them,” Black said. “I fought for this for 10 years. … It was a heartbreak that I couldn’t figure it out as a feature. I kicked myself.”
His obsession with getting “Under the Banner of Heaven” made resulted in a miniseries that shines on many levels, from the script to the performances to the direction to the onscreen look and feel. (Black himself wrote episodes 1 and 2, and he directed episode 5.)
It would never have worked as a movie. At two, even three hours, it would’ve been just another true-crime drama. And that would’ve been a disservice to Brenda and Erica Lafferty — and to the truth.
The script does, perhaps, feel a little heavy-handed to viewers who are familiar with Latter-day Saints, let alone the case. But “Under the Banner of Heaven” isn’t intended for an LDS-only audience.
Black’s creation of a fictionalized lead detective, Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), is genius. Pyre not only gives him a linchpin around which to build the narrative, but a focal point for the conflicts — both internal and external — that arise when modern-day members look back at church history that’s not generally talked about. Or thoroughly examined.
Are viewers who don’t live in Utah going to be taken aback, by the portrayal of an overwhelmingly LDS community where everybody calls each other “brother” and “sister” and everyone knows what you’re talking about when you say “the church”?
Are some Latter-day Saint viewers going to be offended by scenes of church leaders acting less than honorably? Or by scenes set inside a temple?
But “Under the Banner of Heaven” does not set out to malign the church or its members. However, the version of church history the miniseries presents is not the story the church tells about itself, and that’s going to be a challenge for church members.
Make no mistake about it, Black’s point of view is represented in the miniseries overall and in Pyre in particular. But raising questions about the church is not the same as attacking it.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” is filled with fine performances. In addition to Garfield, the cast includes Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda (seen in flashbacks), Sam Worthington as Ron Lafferty and Wyatt Russell as Dan Lafferty. The Lafferty brothers come across as real people, not just foaming-at-the-mouth religious zealots and killers — which makes them all the more chilling.
The cast also includes Tyner Rushing as Emma Smith, Andrew Burnap as Joseph Smith, and Scott Michael Campbell as Brigham Young. Gil Birmingham stars as Pyre’s partner, Bill Taba, a Native American who faces discrimination and gets called “Lamanite” and “chief” by various Utahns — which does, unfortunately, ring true.
And, for the most part, the portrayal of Utah County in the mid-1980s feels like it actually was.
Utahns are going to view “Under the Banner of Heaven” differently than people who live elsewhere. It’s constructed as a whodunnit, and we already know who. As will anyone who read the book “Under the Banner of Heaven,” which “inspired” the miniseries.
To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of Jon Krakauer’s book. It, too, postulated that the mainstream LDS church’s “history of violence” led to the murders, but it felt to me like Krakauer came up with a thesis and then wrote to prove himself right.
Black does a better job of building the same case in the TV version, maybe because he doesn’t sell it as hard. His flashbacks to the church’s early days provide context in a manner more akin to tapping with a mallet than pounding with a sledgehammer — with some notable exceptions. His portrayal of the relationship among Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Emma Smith knocked me back, but I’m no historian.
“Banner” is also about more than just Latter-day Saints. Howard was right when he described it as a “cautionary” tale. “This was sort of a story of transformation that I felt could happen to a lot of people in a lot of faiths,” Howard said. “It’s so much about the way our human belief systems can be distorted and manipulated to justify acts of oppression and violence.”
“Under the Banner of Heaven” will certainly get viewers thinking about Latter-day Saints. I’m not sure it will get Latter-day Saints to think about themselves.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.