September 17, 2015

Review: Captive

by Jesse Johnson

It was a jail break 10 years ago that helped make Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life one of the best selling books of all time.

In Atlanta on March 11, 2005, an inmate awaiting trial for rape found himself in an isolated hallway with a lone female deputy. What followed became a nationally televised man-hunt that you likely remember.

The inmate, Brian Nichols, punched the deputy in the face so hard he put her in a coma, stole her gun and radio, entered court, murdered the judge and a court reporter, and then killed another deputy while fleeing the building.  

Once outside he carjacked several cars, ultimately killing a fourth person before finally escaping.

While he was only on the loose for 24 hours, his escape mesmerized the nation. Most jail breaks in the US are from remote prisons, with inmates that sneak out, or dig out—but a violent escape from a jail in a major downtown area is practically unheard of.

When Nichols was captured, the news reported that The Purpose Driven Life led him to end his escape attempt. We soon learned that Nichols had kidnapped a woman, Ashley Smith, and held her hostage in her apartment. She began reading to him from The Purpose Driven Life, and eventually he decided to let her go. This story was widely reported, and almost overnight The Purpose Driven Life went from basically a book for church programs to the New York Times bestseller list. Within a few years it had sold 35 million copies, and that number doesn’t include the millions of books distributed through churches.

Captive is a new movie that tells the story of the escape, and how The Purpose Driven Life ended up in that apartment that fateful evening. The movie closely follows a book written by Smith, An Unlikely Angel, which describes her ordeal in detail.

The movie does not give a lot of backstory. It starts with Smith’s drug problem (meth) and then goes to the jail break. You learn about both Smith’s and Nichol’s lives largely from their conversations with each other, and you never really know what to believe. This creates a suspense to the movie as the characters’ work through each other’s stories.

Captive is carried largely by the force of the acting. Kate Mara plays Smith, and does so very convincingly.  Nichols is played by David Oyelowo, and this is his first movie since playing Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Oyelowo plays the character in such a way that you believe Nichol’s insanity. A lesser actor would have hurt the credibility of Captive, because so much hinges on presenting Nichol’s psychotic state.

Just because of the quality of the cast, the speed of the plot, and the cinematography, Captive doesn’t “feel” like your typical Christian movie, if you know what I mean. Last week I wrote about War Room, and I described it as an in-your-face kind production. The gospel is presented, characters are converted, and Christian clichés are vindicated.

Well, Captive is not like that.

Instead, it is extremely understated. Don’t get me wrong—it is fast moving, and there is not really a dull moment. But it doesn’t over-play its hand by playing up what happened to Nichols when he was confronted with The Purpose Driven Life. There are no conversions in this movie. There are no sinner’s prayers…the gospel is not even presented!

In fact, the only time the name “Jesus” is mentioned is by Oprah in the closing credits. And if you are wondering what Oprah is doing in the closing credits, well, she is interviewing Rick Warren, of course.

Which brings us to the point of this movie. With most Christian movies, the point is obviously to present people with the gospel. But Captive has a different goal—ostensibly the goal is to confront people with the concept that every life has significance and purpose. At least that’s what the actors and producers said in the media packet that I got.

But the closing credits made me think there was even a more direct message in the movie: namely, buy The Purpose Driven Life. In the closing credits, Oprah interviews Smith and Warren, and they all share about how the message of the book led to Smith’s salvation (although I don’t think they used that word), her sobriety, and her desire to help others. You are kind of left with the impression that the next step should be to buy The Purpose Driven Life.

Which makes sense, because Captive is the perfect movie for The Purpose Driven Life. Both have a simple goal: to tell you that life has a purpose. Both are short on what exactly that purpose is. Both neglect actually explaining the gospel, or what Jesus has done. I don’t think either are harmful, but neither present Christ clearly.

With that in mind, it is fair to say that Captive has all the clarity of The Purpose Driven Life.

The movie is PG-13; Nichols is shown violently assaulting several people, and the scenes are very realistic. He steals cars, he shoots police, and he binds up Smith in her house while threatening her with three guns simultaneously. The scenes of drug use are intense, and you watch the characters sniff meth, get high, and then come crashing down.

With all the drugs and violence, and the minimal spiritual content of the message, should you see this movie? That depends. The acting is exceptional, and for me it was worth seeing just for the historical understanding of what exactly went down the night that catapulted The Purpose Driven Life to mythical status. The movie presents that story very well, and resists making a bigger deal out of it then it needed to.

If you are involved with rehab ministry, or if you minister to drug addicts, then you would definitely appreciate this story. If you wondered why The Purpose Driven Life is so popular, then you would find Captive informative. If you want to see exceptional acting out of a Christian production, then this is one of your rare opportunities.

But if you are looking to a movie for spiritual encouragement or for a gospel presentation, then you should sit this one out (or go see War Room instead).

Here is Tim Challies helpful review of The Purpose Driven Life,.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
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  • tovlogos

    Thanks Jesse — “I don’t think either are harmful, but neither present Christ clearly.”
    Of course it would yield more insight to a serious student of theology. On the other hand, many so called Christian movies fail to do the Bible justice; though they are more, ostensibly, Biblically explicit. It does sound interesting.

  • Jesse, great to see you at the Captive pre-screening. Great review as well as your previous one on War Room. Both spot-on.

    • Thanks Dave. Glad to hear things are well at Covenant Life. Thanks for reading.

  • tom

    Jesse, what do you think of War Room review by Justin Peters?

  • KittyKins

    I’m one of those who will appreciate War Room instead. I prefer on target Christian movies with a direct message, and not those that pussy-foot around the Gospel message.