It’s hard to believe that it’s mid-October already, and only just now have I finally been able to go to a theatre and watch a feature length documentary in public. Sure, I’ve caught a couple here and there when I do festival coverage for my friends at No Rest for the Weekend (click here for my recap of this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, which just wrapped up), but otherwise I’ve been severely lacking in my non-fiction viewing, and we’re only a few weeks away from the Oscar shortlists coming out and the madcap chase to find the 15 semifinalists.
So it was a bit of an overdue relief to finally knock out my first feature, though I wouldn’t exactly call it a relaxing or entertaining experience. That’s because The Mission, directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (the filmmakers behind the enthralling Boys State from 2020), feels almost tailor-made to piss you off if you’re anything resembling a free and logical thinker. Just like that previous opus, the pair have crafted an insightful and compelling look into what happens when youth gets corrupted by extremism that leaves you righteously angry at how easily avoidable it all was. Before it was about how social media and a culture of misinformation had bastardized an exercise in civic engagement, which ended up becoming quite prescient when it came to the eventual insurrection against our government. Here, the tragedy lies in the wild misappropriation of faith.
In 2018, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old evangelical missionary, was killed by the natives of North Sentinel Island, one of the last largely uncontacted civilizations in the world. He had made it his personal crusade to deliver the Gospel to the couple hundred or so people who live in intentional isolation under the protection of the Indian government. There are only a few extant documents of Westerners meeting these tribesmen, along with photos in National Geographic (who co-sponsored the film). Chau set foot on the island and quickly met his end. There are some who consider this a tragic result, but as the film shows us, the real sadness was that he was even there to begin with.
The first half of the film details John’s evangelism, sense of adventure, and road to radicalization. And to be clear, that last bit is not an indictment on my part. It’s a title he assigned himself. In one of the movie’s more genius (and somewhat heartbreaking) choices, actors Lawrence Kao and David Shih respectively narrate from John’s personal diary (which survived his loss) and a letter written by his father Patrick to the filmmakers in lieu of appearing on camera for an interview, presumably because his grief is still too great. Patrick, who emigrated from China as a refugee in the mid-20th Century, raised his children to be Christian, but John became fanatical, believing it was his destiny to travel the world and spread the Gospel. He came to believe quite strongly in the futurist version of the “Great Commission,” the post-resurrection command of Jesus to spread the faith to all nations of the world. John believed that the prophecies of the Book of Revelation could not come to pass while there was still some untouched culture out there, and he fixated on the North Sentinelese, seeing their conversion and the planting of a church on the island as his path to salvation.
If you’re like me and are at least skeptical of organized religion, the first 45 minutes or so are borderline enraging. Through interviews with John’s friends, classmates, Christian school teachers, and ministerial acquaintances, along with beautiful washed out animated sequences set to the dramatic readings of his diary and Patrick’s letter, the movie comes dangerously close to painting John as a pure victim. One of the first sound bites we get is from Levi Davis, a school friend and part of a “purity” clique in which John and everyone else kept each other “in check” as teenagers, to make sure they weren’t sinning (“watching porn” as Levi puts it). The first thing we hear him say about John is that, “My friend did something stupid… and brave… courageous even. I wish I had the commitment he had.”
Any logical person, regardless of their level of religious devotion, would hear that and think, “Yeah, you could have just stopped at ‘stupid.’” But the effete praise doesn’t stop. A plethora of theologians and laymen are out in force to talk about how great of a kid he was, and how his dream was good and righteous, particularly those who knew him during his time at Oral Roberts University and his brief stint working in the parks service. He had an adventurous spirit, and a love of the outdoors, but he also carried this personal cross that he gave himself, and for a long time in this documentary, it feels like the interview subjects — and the filmmakers by extension — are letting him off the hook, not even daring to question his motives or interpretation of faith, which would just be unacceptable and irresponsible. I’ve said this a lot, particularly as it relates to supernatural horror films, but you can’t take Christianity — or any religion — as presumptive truth in these types of stories. It’s intellectually dishonest to not challenge the assertions or approach the subject with a critical mindset. You simply can’t take the unknowable at face value.
It’s especially true in a documentary. In order to understand John’s life — and death — you have to be willing to ask uncomfortable questions. For the first major chunk of this film, it really looks like that’s not what we’re doing, however. When it comes to John’s life, the only sound we hear against anything he does is the reading of his father’s letter, the remorse still quite palpable even if Shih were to read it without any inflection. Just seeing the imagined despair in his animated face is enough. Regarding John’s missionary ambitions, the closest we get to dissent is historian Adam Goodheart, one of the few people who has seen the North Sentinelese from a distance, wishing that John hadn’t been inspired by his work in such a way. He’s initially contrasted with former missionary Dan Everett, who spent 30 years with an Amazonian tribe trying to convert them.
But then, something strange and sudden happens. Around the halfway point, the shoe drops, and the film takes on the critical perspective that was desperately needed. We see private documents that John sent to those he trusted, detailing his “plan” to land on North Sentinel, knowing full well that it is illegal (India maintains an exclusion zone around the island). His diary talks about how sad he is that only he can bring about the Rapture and the Second Coming of Jesus by reaching this “last” nation to hear the Good News. The very people who trained John to be a missionary admit that he had likely developed a Messiah Complex. The animation as well shifts its tone (thematically and in color) ever so slightly to clue the viewer in that we’re about to delve into much darker territory. Even Everett, who approached his evangelism in the 70s as “Go there [to the Amazonians], learn their language, and convert them,” has since renounced faith entirely, because he realized that the tribe liked him just fine as a person, and respected his beliefs, but were simply uninterested in any biblical path forward because their culture focuses on what can be done in reality, in the here and now, not what might await them after they die based on 2,000-year-old stories where no one is even sure what Christ looked like. When confronted with these basic questions that couldn’t be reconciled, Everett realized the colonial, and even genocidal, behaviors inherent in what he was doing, and quit.
This leads to a macabre yet acceptable conclusion for the audience to draw. John Chau was not a bad person. But based on his actions, he arguably got what he deserved, and it’s gut-wrenching to think that about an actual human being who died horribly. This, to me, is why the first half is almost entirely pro-John. It’s not endorsing or condoning his imagined purpose, it’s qualifying his humanity, with an emphasis on the very normal faults that could doom any one of us in the worst situations. It’s showing that he was an antagonist without being a villain. What he did, what he thought, was objectively wrong, at least on factual and legal grounds, if not moral and ethical, and he suffered what could easily be dispassionately interpreted as the proper consequences. But his misplaced intentions were, in general, positive. I wouldn’t say they were altruistic, because this ill-fated journey was as much about his own ego and perceived place in God’s kingdom as anything else, but he didn’t truly mean any harm. He even wanted to find a way to incorporate Sentinelese culture into his mission, trying to figure out how their mythology could be spun in a Christian context, ironically not unlike how pagans were converted by co-opting their holidays. But you know what they say about good intentions and the road to Hell.
There’s something akin to a cognitive dissonance at play, as we in the audience are challenged to reconcile our sense of empathy with the cold truth of the matter, and in doing so understand how John’s loss was terrible, but also appropriate if you can set the pathos aside. Remember, to the Sentinelese, this man was an invader, someone who presumed that he had a right to insinuate himself into their territory and culture completely uninvited, despite past warnings to outsiders to not approach them (Goodheart’s photos and films show aggressive displays of weapons and numbers as their boats approached, convincing them to not attempt going ashore). There’s a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram of Americans who preach Christian love while also protesting their right to “stand their ground” and shoot anyone they perceive as a threat. The film asks the audience how this case is, at its core, any different, providing the essential nuance that the discourse requires, yet which so few projects — be they fiction or non — are willing to engage.
That’s when it hits you. The tragedy here is not that John died. The tragedy is in how easily he was led astray, and how he couldn’t come back from the brink of madness. No reasonable person would tell him to abandon his beliefs. Even someone like me, who is deeply critical and skeptical of religion, still respects the freedom to worship, and I never begrudge anyone their faith unless it attempts to infringe on my or anyone else’s rights. What they would say, however, is to do like Dan Everett and Adam Goodheart. Stop focusing on the fantasy of the holy reward you might get, and instead look at the reality of the world around you and choose to live. There are so many points where John could easily back out of this project, and not a single person would judge him for it, and yet he marched on, almost fetishizing his own impending doom.
On his first approach to the island, a child with a bow literally shoots the Bible out of his hands. “That kid didn’t miss,” opines Everett, and he’s very likely right. I know I’m not the best when it comes to interpreting nonverbal cues. Hell, when it comes to women, I’ve joked (accurately) for years that I can’t tell the difference between a signal and a traffic light. But even someone as dumb as I am in this respect would understand such a poetic message. They don’t want you there. This was your warning. Cut your losses and go home. Instead, per his journal, John saw something in the stars later that night, and he decided THAT was the true sign from God that he should keep going. It’s like the story about a man on his roof during a flood. He refuses rescue from a car, a boat, and a helicopter, convinced that God will save him. When he eventually drowns and meets God, he asks why the almighty let him die, and God scoffs, “What are you talking about? I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter.” If you wish to believe in higher powers like that, then it’s entirely reasonable to think, “IDIOT! GOD SENT YOU AN ARROW INTO HIS OWN FUCKING BOOK! HE’S LITERALLY TELLING YOU THESE STORIES AREN’T WORTH YOUR LIFE! TAKE THE HINT!”
And this is where you get angry again, but for the right reasons. John was a fool. A good, kind, well-meaning fool, but a fool all the same. And he paid for his foolishness with his life. Now a father grieves, stricken with a regret he will likely never shed because he couldn’t stop his son from basically killing himself. Friends and colleagues must now live with the fact that they’ll never again see a good person who made their lives better just by being in them. And what’s worse, essentially no lessons are learned, because the very people who sang his praises up and down now regard him as a martyr rather than a cautionary tale. One of his missionary trainers considers it a human rights violation to stop mission work, because she believes that all people have the right to hear the Gospel and decide for themselves whether or not to accept it, conveniently disregarding their human right to be left alone. The preachers at Oral Roberts take John’s loss as a call to (hopefully figurative) arms to finish his work and convert the “savages” who did this to him. After all, why should anyone care for the laws of men when God gives you the authority to spread His message? A body lies dead on the sand, riddled with arrows, and the takeaway is that they should keep going. That is insanity!
Even Levi, who at times seems willing to consider alternate opinions on John’s fate, comes to the conclusion that people will see John’s story as being about a young man who followed his dreams and did what he wanted to do, and maybe extend that to their own lives. But the real message, in his eyes, is that John did what Jesus wanted him to do. NO! That isn’t it at all! One, basic logic says that if Jesus really wanted him to do this, he’d have given him a more concrete sign, or at minimum not let him die before completing his task. If anything, as previously stated, God and/or Jesus gave him a pretty strong indicator that this was decidedly NOT what was wanted. You cannot assert divine will when you cannot offer even minimal proof or evidence to back it up. John very much did what he wanted to do, not anyone else. Second, and most importantly, no level-headed person would walk out of this thinking that the lesson of John’s life is to follow your own ambitions. That’s just asinine. That’d be like watching Evel Knievel crash his motorcycle, breaking half the bones in his body, and deciding the moral of the story is that motorcycles are fun. The genuine sentiment shared by the people in the theatre with me was that John’s loss was sad, but also a textbook example of what is called, in modern parlance: “Fuck around and find out.” That’s the only salient conclusion.
When it’s all said and done, in spite of all his holy intentions, John was the victim of modern-day natural selection. The entire universe was screaming at him not to do this, that he had no right to do this. Even his own instincts were telling him to turn back. And yet he pressed on against it all because he was sure he was right and righteous. And in return, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum, nature selected him for extinction. That’s what makes a film like this so cathartically profound and infuriating. A good person died needlessly because of his own arrogance and hubris, stoked by the very people who could have saved him, because they themselves believe in their unjustified sense of superiority. Just like with Boys State, McBaine and Moss show that when extreme, radical forces come to bear, nothing good can come of it. Back then it was just the temporary online character assassination of a teenage boy, a year after the same organization voted to have Texas secede from the Union rather than accept the laws and political procedures of those they disagree with. A few months later, those attitudes came to what is hopefully their nadir when thousands of people — civilians and public servants alike — tried to violently overturn a free and fair election because their guy lost. In The Mission, nothing is accomplished, and the foolish death of a misguided youth only emboldens the extremists who helped him down the primrose path. What future tragedies might John’s story inspire if we don’t learn from it this time around?
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you want to see more documentary coverage as part of my regular schedule? Have you ever had a friend who was so committed to a dangerous path but you couldn’t dissuade them from it? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!