Meet the Mormons
Directed by Blair Treu
From Excel Entertainment Group
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
In 1948, an Air Force pilot dropping food and provisions to civilians over Soviet-controlled Germany during the Berlin Airlift came up with a risky idea: as he cleared the blockaded city he would make one final drop, one filled with candy and sweets for Berlin’s children.
He got the idea earlier while standing next to the border fence and talking to the children, who were pawns in a larger Cold War game played after World War II. The pilot, Gail Halvorsen, split two sticks of gum and handed them through the fence. The children were in awe — the ones that didn’t get gum sniffed the foil wrapper.
Later, risking a court martial and an international spectacle, Halvorsen began what would later be called Operation Little Vittles, a plan to drop candy into communist-controlled Germany.
Oh, and Halvorsen is a Mormon in case the title was a little misleading.
The pilot’s story is one of six told in Blair Treu’s documentary Meet the Mormons, a film meant to humanize a religion and its curious, at times strange, members. Make no mistake about the film’s intentions: it’s a PR symphony orchestrated and funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known colloquially as the Mormon church. The roots of the film likely come from the church’s last media blitz, which included commercials of normal-looking folks proclaiming, “I’m a Mormon.” None of the commercials looked this amazing, though — seriously, the photography is gorgeous.
Halvorsen’s story is easily the most fascinating, although examinations of separate families from Nepal and Atlanta are insightful and show varied cultures in a church widely known for its lily-white Utah-dwelling members. We first see Halvorsen as he’s soaring over California, light glittering off the water, the sunset hugging the horizon in a warm embrace. “God created this,” he says, and surely many will agree. Religion and faith creep into some of the interviews, but the film allows its subjects to speak about who they are, what their lives are like and, eventually, why their church is right for them. It’s preachy, but in a subtle, non-threatening and informative way.
Meet the Mormons examines the roles of the church’s clergy, white-shirted missionaries, its reach around the globe, and its influence and inclusion in modern culture — an opening narration is quick to quote Mormon references in South Park, Fletch, 30 Rock, The Simpsons and other entertainment. (Although, shots in Times Square don’t acknowledge the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.) It does an interesting job showing varied people, including a Costa Rican female kickboxer, a single mother, a professional football coach, and the couple from Nepal, who risked alienation from their community when they began practicing their western Christian religion.
Because it’s created by the church, don’t expect in-depth examinations of the religion’s more newsworthy items. For instance, its support of anti-gay legislation is not something that comes up. It’s mostly a feel-good look into the LDS church and the lives of its members. Mormons, obviously, will treasure it and what it represents to them and their faith. Curious non-Mormons might find some value in the stories, as well. Most audiences, though, will likely recognize Meet the Mormons for what it is: a PR project designed to launch a national discussion about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (The church has announced that all proceeds from ticket sales will go to the Red Cross.)
Now, full disclosure, I’m a Mormon. Have been all my life. As a member I can honestly say that Meet the Mormons captures the spirit of the church and what it means to be a member. As a film critic, though, I can’t help but think that Meet the Mormons is a little flimsy. These stories are inspirational, but not quite enough for a full documentary. The look and feel of the film is genuine, but it beats the central theme — “Mormons are just like you! — over your head one too many times. That being said, though, the film is bland yet cheerful, and altogether innocent. If it makes people question their ideas about who or what Mormons are, then it likely served its producers' purpose.