While a very interesting documentary about the later life and death of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith, I’ll be right up front with it: The film has clearly been repurposed to take advantage of the current election cycle and Mitt Romney’s presumptive nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. In fact, in its 54 minute run time, there’s very little mention of Smith’s candidacy for president in 1844, and there’s no mention of Romney at all.
Still, if you’re not familiar with Mormon history, this is a fairly impartial look at events in Smith’s life, from early Mormons being run out of Independence, Missouri to Smith’s death in Nauvoo, Illinois. I suppose viewer’s perceptions will differ depending on their point of view — the talking heads providing the background story come from Mormon, Evangelical Christian, and Secular circles — so it might be entirely possible to come out of the experience believing that Smith really was everything he claimed to be. It’s just as easy to come out believing that Smith was an egotistical, dangerous lunatic who got what he deserved.
The documentary skips over the founding of the Mormon Church itself, but Smith’s alleged discovery and translation of some golden plates was actually covered fairly accurately in an episode of South Park. While I’d guess that many non-Mormons are vaguely familiar with that concept, there is a lot of value in knowing what happened later, in Independence, Missouri. Believing it to be the location of the New Jerusalem on Earth, the Mormons (or at least their leaders) became pretty ballsy, and the turning point came when one of their elders, Sidney Rigdon, gave a public sermon which pretty much stated, “We are the only true church, and we will wipe the other false churches from the planet.”
Not a good thing to say when you’re surrounded by a lot of not-Mormons, the end result being the governor of Missouri signing an order expelling all Mormons from his state. When they didn’t all leave, a Missouri Militia took up arms, slaughtering a group of Mormons at Haun’s Mill. Of course, it’s never a good idea to give an upstart religion martyrs, and the effect on Smith is apparent in events that happen after the others flee to Nauvoo, Illinois — Smith going so far has to have himself crowned “King of Israel on Earth” during his presidential campaign.
A Mormon President, though, never really tells us anything about that campaign other than it apparently existed, making the film’s subtitle grossly misleading. In any case, Smith died on June 27, 1844, although, in those much slower times, this was well after the Whigs and Democrats had announced their nominees in May.
However, all is not misrepresented on the DVD. You just have to go to the bonus features, and those are well worth watching, because they do pay off the promise of the title, particularly a section (using many of the speakers from the documentary) outlining the Evangelical Christian view of a Mormon presidential candidate which is, in a nutshell, quite dim. To a non-religious person like myself, it’s actually a somewhat amusing battle, rather like watching two D&D Dungeon Masters with different ideas arguing whether a Troll should deal two damage or four, and whether or not a Green Orc can counteract it — all just so much smoke and magic and “my god can kick your god’s ass” and the like. Still, it does give some glimmer of hope that the aforementioned Evangelicals, said to make up 30% of the Republican base, will not vote for a Mormon candidate under any circumstances, in any way, whatsoever.
But… there is a reminder (granted, from one of the pro-Mormon voices) of the presidential campaign of 1960, when all of the same issues came up over a Catholic candidate, who happened to end up winning the election. That, of course, was John F. Kennedy and, while America survived its first and (to date) only Catholic president, America’s only Catholic candidate did not survive the presidency, so the issue is still somewhat moot. After all, what’s to say that a second term would not have turned him into the Pope’s Handmaid? We’ll never know. We are also reminded that there have been around a dozen Mormon candidates for president already, none of them successful, the big surprise on the list being Eldridge Cleaver. One would hardly suspect a Black Panther of also being a Mormon although, to be fair, one thing the DVD doesn’t mention is that Cleaver didn’t become a Mormon until several decades after his 1968 run for President, and not until he rejected the (then) new Christian Evangelical movement, a la the Moral Majority.
So… can I recommend the documentary itself as being just what it says on the tin? No. The title and packaging are just a bit of opportunism although, to be fair, anyone sitting on a Mormon documentary made in 2011 who didn’t exploit it during a campaign season with a Mormon candidate would be, to put it charitably, a complete idiot. Can I recommend it as a documentary? If you want to know about this stuff, then definitely yes, especially if it inspires you to go on and learn more about American history of the period. As a factual, talking head with historical recreations piece, it does the job and, given such a divisive person as its subject, it is surprisingly even-handed in the talky bits. Did the early Mormons suffer some persecution that would outrage us if it happened today? Yes. Did the early Mormon church leaders act like insufferable douchebags toward the rest of the world and bring some of that violence on themselves? Definitely yes. Would a Mormon president today prove himself to be an insufferable douchebag?
Okay. I have my own answer to that question. A Mormon President, though, doesn’t even touch on it, and the bonus features themselves provide both sides. Then again, in this partisan political climate where everyone has already made up their minds anyway and cheers for their selected candidate in a way that would make a fan of Man United look indecisive, perhaps the evenhanded treatment is exactly what’s needed. We’re all going to cherry-pick anyway. Paraphrasing what one of the person-on-the-street interviewees says in the bonus features, we all need to do our own research and come to our own conclusions. While I can complain about a misleading title, I can’t complain that the producer of A Mormon President (interestingly named Adam Christing) didn’t do his research. Whether the subject without the marketing hype will be of interest is really up to you.