Review: The Mormons Part 1 on PBS

Naturally, there has been a lot of buzz among latter-day saints about the two part documentary produced on PBS by The American Experience and Frontline about The Mormons. Latter-day saints have somewhat of a persecution complex (and not without some good reasons) so of course there has been a lot of speculation about just how balanced this particular documentary would be. I think that a lot of the speculation has been relatively optimistic.

If you missed it or want to re-watch parts of it, the documentary is available online at http://www.pbs.org/mormons/view/ .

Monday night I watched the first two-hour installment and had mixed feelings about it. I have yet to watch the second installment and will post a review when I have.

I have often thought that the power of music to manipulate an audience was best demonstrated in the 1998 movie “The Truman Show” where unexpectedly the virtual curtain is pulled back on what is supposed to be an emotional scene to reveal the director of the show manipulating the volume of the music to bring the scene to an emotional climax.

The very first thing I noticed was the music that played over the beginning segments of the documentary covering Joseph Smith’s early life and revelations. It sounded like an eerie, melancholy violin or cello piece that you might hear in the background of an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.” To supplement the ambiance produced by the music selection, it was also unfortunate that the director chose during these segments to use creepy, indistinct, almost Halloween-like brown and black charcoal silhouette images of dead trees on barren landscapes and lone, spooky houses instead of sharp, warm pictures. Additionally, whenever discussing the visit of the angel Moroni to young Joseph, they repeatedly used an image of a backlighted, black and red “Angel” shrouded in shadow that looked like it had been cut from the “satanic” cover-art of a death-metal rock band’s album.

In today’s entertainment-driven environment such sensationalism is probably inevitable from directors looking to attract channel-surfers. Admittedly, Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone will appear weird (in the literal, archaic sense of the word), but I think it was a poor decision to reinforce “occult” stereotypes through the selection of music and imagery. I doubt that you would see a PBS documentary use similar music and imagery while discussing Moses’s use of his “magic” staff or his brazen serpent, Mohammed’s visit from the angel Gabriel.

As is usual, there was an over emphasis on Joseph Smith’s charisma as a converting influence (citing Brigham Young as a supposedly representative example of someone converted by Joseph Smith’s presence), without balancing that view by pointing out that a majority of converts joined the church without having ever met Joseph Smith first. Missionaries and The Book of Mormon itself played a much larger role in converting new members, just as they do today, and they could have cited Parley P. Pratt as a counter example of someone who was converted by reading The Book of Mormon without having met the Prophet.

So even though I would consider the spoken words of these early segments relatively balanced, I think that in the auditory and visual context in which those words were placed they simply reinforced stale stereotypes, and that is disappointing.

Another subtle disappointment lies in how the documentary identifies the individuals speaking. For instance, when Professor Dan Peterson (with whom I am acquainted) is commenting on the translation of the Book of Mormon, it simply identifies him as “Islamic Studies Professor” without noting that he is also a member of the church and noted LDS apologist. Similarly, Ken Clark is identified only as a “former LDS church educator” and not as a member of the Exmormon Foundation (whether he is only formerly an educator or formerly a member is left ambiguous). Only Elder Oaks, Elder Holland, and Elder Jensen (who is labeled the “LDS Church Historian”) are identified in a way that communicates their bias and position in relation to the church. The lack of transparency regarding the other participants in this regard does not allow viewers to weigh their words in the context of their relative orientation toward the church. Some would argue the opposite: that leaving such information unsaid allows viewers to evaluate the message on its own merits instead of the messenger, but I would argue that since the documentary presents itself as instructional and factual, that unless the bias of the participants is made transparent, speculations and spin on disputed issues by certain participants are likely to be mistaken by viewers as simple fact instead of disputable assertions tainted by either a positive or negative orientation toward the church.

I also wish that better context had been given to the assertions that Utah under Brigham Young was basically theocratic. They could have balanced that discussion by mentioning that the territory under Brigham Young gave women the right to vote and that that right was revoked later by the United States, so in some ways it was more democratic than the U.S. They could have also mentioned, by way of comparison, harsher Christian theocracies of the past such as that established in Geneva by John Calvin during the Protestant Reformation, which employed torture to punish heretics and put supposed “witches” to death.

The documentary spends an inordinate amount of time on the mountain meadows massacre, which in the over-all view of the church is a tragic exception in what is overwhelmingly a peaceful, constructive history. So much emphasis on an exceptional situation with disputed facts distorts its importance in forming a view of the church. Not that I think it should have been left out. It certainly should be discussed. From a narrative point of view it makes a nice foil to the previous Haun’s Mill massacre of the latter-day saints, so I can see why a storyteller would apply distorted attention to it in order to make a more appealing story by highlighting the parallels. But I think that sacrificing perspective and scope for a more appealing storyline perpetuates stereotypes instead of breaking them down. And to be fair at least the tragedy was placed into the context of the past persecutions for the latter-day saints.

Of course, it is always easier to point out flaws in a work like The Mormons than it is to point out what it does right. There were several parts wherein the director did a great job of contrasting the comments and views of one participant with another. And all of the participants appeared to be articulate, rational, normal people instead of crazy cultists, which is a great improvement over previous depictions of the members of our faith.

However, I expect that a viewer previously unfamiliar with the church would come away from this first installment with the impression that the church finds it origins in the weird and the occult, that Mormons will murder on command from the prophet, and that Joesph Smith instituted polygamy to satisfy his own sexual urges, which is really disappointing. It would have been nice to see some discussion of the doctrines revealed by Joseph Smith that are so appealing and interesting, such as proxy work for the dead, degrees of glory, the sealing power, and pre-mortal existence. Perhaps the next part will cover them.

On the other hand, viewers will also see modern LDS commentators as intelligent, articulate, and not particularly cultish, which is a plus, and they may have some sympathy for the horrible, unprecedented persecution suffered by early members of the church.

Grade: C – Needs Improvement

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