Providing a balanced portrayal of either LDS Church founder Joseph Smith or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has proven daunting for even the most experienced historians, political scientists and journalists.
But keeping that balance while intermingling the stories of how both Mormon men became candidates for president of the United States isn't something anyone has accomplished yet let alone in only 60 minutes on film. Yet that's exactly what a young filmmaker said he has attempted in a new documentary, "A Mormon President," scheduled to premiere in Salt Lake City next month.
Adam Christing, the film's producer and director, told the Deseret Morning News that skeptics who may like Romney's politics but can't get past his faith will find a broader understanding of what makes him tick, while supporters also may learn facts about Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that could present challenges.
In fact, the film is much more about Smith than it is about Romney, he said, but uses the presidential quest as a common link.
"Very few people realize that Romney is not the first Mormon to run for the White House," said Christing, a comedian popular in Christian circles who studied theology at Biola University in Los Angeles and has made only one other documentary film. Raised as a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now known as the Community of Christ), Christing is a member of the Mormon History Association and cited his "total passion for the subject" as his biggest qualification to make the film.
He admitted to being surprised that there has been little skepticism regarding his credentials to produce it but said many have been wary of his approach, trying to gauge whether he was working on "an anti-Mormon film or a puff piece" that favors Romney and the LDS Church.
Christing said he's been mulling a balanced film portrayal of Smith for a long time, because "I don't think it has been told in a really balanced way that I'm aware of. ... In my experience, it's such a puff piece or like something like Fawn Brodie's book ('No Man Knows My History'), an all-out attack."
He became fascinated with Smith after learning of his presidential aspirations long before Romney came onto the national political stage, he said.
"To understand Romney, you have to understand Joseph Smith," Christing said. The man who told the world he saw God, talked with angels, translated gold plates and organized the LDS Church is so complex a character that chronicling his life alone has consumed years for many who have tried to paint a balanced picture. "He accomplished more in 14 years than people normally do in 50 years of career," Christing said.
Smith's daring has spurred the filmmaker to examine not only the church founder's short-lived political career, but also the events that have made him a center of controversy for more than 150 years.
Christing's crew recently retraced steps from the forced 1838 Mormon evacuation from Missouri to Nauvoo, Ill., where Smith announced his campaign for the White House and was murdered shortly thereafter.
Romney was a way to look both at Smith and the faith that he and Romney share in the arena of partisan politics, which has historically been wary of deep religious conviction.
Will the film help or hurt Romney's campaign?
Christing said he doesn't know, but he's impressed with Romney's sincerity. "Many have called him a flip-flopper. ... I think (he's) real. I think he would be a shoo-in as the Republican candidate if not for the fact that he is Mormon. In one way that's sad to me, and in another way it's so interesting. He could be Baptist or Lutheran or Jewish and it wouldn't be such a big deal."
After having interviewed people all across the country, Christing said he's convinced there is "still anti-Mormon feeling in America. It's very easy to find people who feel that way."
Geography wasn't the issue, he said, noting he didn't find that particular areas of the country are more heavily saturated with negative sentiment toward the LDS Church. "A person's perspective on their own faith was kind of the key card," he said. He added that "most people have never heard of Joseph Smith," though in many ways, "he was the most important Latter-day Saint of all time. But even a lot of Mormons don't know he ran for president."
Though Americans may not generally know Smith's story, most know the LDS Church has a connection to polygamy, though they don't know exactly what role it played in the faith or whether it's still being practiced, he said.
Media coverage of convicted felon Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist LDS Church and its polygamist lifestyle, has many people still guessing, though top LDS leaders have repeatedly emphasized that the Salt Lake-based church disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.
The film depicts re-enactments of several key events in Smith's life, including a scene where Emma Smith learns that God has commanded her husband to enter into plural marriage, Christing said. The scenes help set the stage for how the "Mormon factor" impacts Romney's candidacy, he said.
"When we talk about polygamy, we have scholars talking about it," including one who points out polygamy as one link between Smith and Romney. "Mitt called it bizarre, but it's in his own ancestry," Christing said. "At times like that there is a natural link" between the two men in the film, he said.
Top LDS leaders declined to be interviewed for the film, though Christing said he was pleasantly surprised at the cooperation he got from LDS and Community of Christ officials, who allowed him to film scenes at specific historical sites in both Nauvoo and Carthage, Ill.
Romney also declined to be interviewed, even though a film crew traveled to meet him in the hope that they could get footage. Though he was disappointed, Christing said he understands Romney's hesitancy. "He's running as a politician, not as a member of the church."
Richard Bushman, author of the recent critically acclaimed biography on Smith, "Rough Stone Rolling," was among the scholars interviewed for the project, along with Susan Easton Black of Brigham Young University, Roger Launius from the Smithsonian and Newell Bringhurst, former president of MHA.
Historians D. Michael Quinn and Todd Compton were also sources, as was Bill McKeever from Mormonism Research Ministry and LeGrand Baker, who authored the 2006 book, "Murder of the Mormon Prophet: The Political Prelude to the Death of Joseph Smith." All the scholars interviewed were paid, Christing said, "though not a huge amount."
With 45 hours of footage to date, Christing said the film's first cut will be about an hour long. He hopes the film with be "accutaining," he said, a blend of "accurate, engaging and entertaining."
Funding for the $350,000 project came mostly from independent sources "that means individuals" as well as a chunk from his own pocket, Christing said, noting he used non-union actors for the re-enactment scenes from Smith's life.
Wealthy individuals both LDS and anti-LDS offered to provide money if the film had the right "slant," Christing said. He said the offers were tempting, "but I didn't feel any of those sources would help me with the balance" he said he has tried to maintain. "That's one of the advantages of being independent. You can fulfill your vision, and not someone else's."
Those who did provide funding liked what he did with a previous independent comedy, now in post-production, and were willing to pony up again.
The film will premiere at Brewvies, 677 S. 200 West, at 7 p.m. Dec. 12, Christing said, explaining he was looking for a venue that would provide an audience of Mormon history buffs comfortable with the film's content, and the brew pub happened to be available on the right date. The film also is scheduled to be screened in Los Angeles the same week, "mostly to non-LDS people to kind of hear how they feel about it."
People who have seen the two-minute trailer have had various reactions. A group of Baptist ministers asked him if he worked for the Romney campaign and whether the film was LDS. "Others who've seen it think it's anti-LDS."
Typically, he said, "it's all in your perspective," and that's what the film hopes to point out. Romney's campaign presents a Catch-22 for people "who have Mormon neighbors that are the finest people they know, but they've heard all these critical things about the church.
"When it comes to electing a president, people want almost a father figure who's more than just a political leader, kind of like Ronald Reagan; he was our dad," he said, adding many Americans are finding it difficult to get that comfortable with a man whose faith they don't necessarily understand or trust.50 comments on this story
Though Christing sees religious prejudice at play in Romney's bid for the White House, he said one LDS scholar told him the tide is bound to turn at some point.
"Richard Bushman told me that, over time, people will realize Mormonism is not an infection. America is the history of inclusion: blacks can't vote and then they can, women can't vote and then they can. He said, over time, people will realize they can vote for a Mormon president because there will be less fear."