“Joseph Smith: American Prophet” is a nicely done, seemingly faith-promoting film that recounts the history of the man who founded the Mormon church.
If you’re a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you won’t be surprised by much of anything in it. If you’re not, there are certainly things that will come as, ahem, a revelation to you.
Lee Groberg and Mark Goodman have reworked their 1999 film, retaining the narration done by Gregory Peck, who died in 2003. It tells Smith’s story with new, dramatic re-creations featuring fresh-faced actors, along with actors reading words written by Smith and others at the time.
That’s accompanied by a variety of talking heads. Authors. Academics from Harvard, Columbia, George Mason and the University of Illinois. Representatives of the LDS Church, including church historians and apostles M. Russell Ballard and Dallin Oaks.
It’s no surprise that “Joseph Smith: American Prophet” is airing Sunday at 2 p.m. on KBYU-Ch. 11. It’s somewhat surprising that it’s also airing on WETA in Washington, D.C. — one of PBS’ flagship stations — and a couple dozen other PBS stations across the country.
Make no mistake. Most of this production plays like something the Sunday School teacher at the LDS ward down the street might show to his/her class.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Yes, the original version aired on PBS stations in 1999. But it seems somewhat unusual that what feels like a missionary tool for the LDS Church is airing on some PBS stations in 2017, labeled as a documentary. Because this is not a balanced film.
When the subject of polygamy comes up about 68 minutes into “Joseph Smith: American Prophet,” five talking heads and quotations from Smith and his contemporaries defend it; one talking head notes it caused trouble for Smith, his family and the church.
There is some mention of opposition to Smith in “American Prophet.” There are talking heads who make it clear that they are not Mormon, and they don’t believe Joseph Smith was a prophet.
But they all express great admiration for him.
“I find Joseph Smith a remarkable person,” says Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, a professor at Washington University. “He had a charisma that is undeniable and a vision for a community that was unlike anything else that’s ever been created.”
This is about as close as any of them comes to criticism: “Did Joseph Smith believe that he had seen a vision? Of course he believed it,” says author Richard T. Hughes (“Myths America Lives By,” “The American Quest for the Primitive Church”). “I mean, Joseph was severely persecuted and harassed for making that claim. He would’ve had to have been nuts to make that claim and stick with it if he didn’t really believe that he had had that vision.”
Certainly, there are plenty of sources out there who would make the opposite argument. And that would have been included in a true documentary.
I’m not arguing that Joseph Smith was not a great man. I’m not arguing one way or the other about him at all.
I’m just pointing out that this is not a documentary that presents various viewpoints and lets you decide.