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Photos provided by Time Life Pictures, Shearer Images, Museum of Church History and Art/Deseret Morning News photo illustration
"The Mormons" explores many aspects of the LDS Church, including missionary work, temples and founder Joseph Smith. The LDS Church cooperated with the filmmaker but had no input on final product.
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After you watch ...   » Tell us what you thought about the PBS documentary "The Mormons." Send an e-mail to [email protected].

If you watch ...   » What: "The Mormons," a two-part, four-hour documentary   » When: Monday and Tuesday, 8-10 p.m.   » Channels: KUED-Ch. 7 and KBYU-Ch. 11   » Also: KUED and KBYU will air a local discussion of "The Mormons" during a special edition of "Utah NOW," May 4, 8 p.m.

Anyone who's planning to use the two-part, four-hour PBS documentary "The Mormons" in Sunday School at their local ward is going to be sorely disappointed.

But then so is anyone who's planning to hang copies of the program on doorknobs to convince members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to abandon their faith.

"The Mormons" is not a faith-promoting missionary tool. Although it might turn out to be that for some.

Neither is it an anti-Mormon diatribe. Though some people might see it that way at times.

"The Mormons" is a documentary. Award-winning filmmaker Helen Whitney doesn't take an advocacy position — she neither promotes nor rails against the LDS Church.

She brought great enthusiasm to the project — she did spend more than three years working on it, after all. In an interview with the Deseret Morning News, Whitney's voice rose in delight as she talked about subjects ranging from "Joseph Smith with all of his boundless optimism" to the LDS Church's lay ministry.

"Your next-door-neighbor could be the bishop and you, who are the CEO of American Express, could be playing piano for the choir," she said. "I mean, I love that part of it."

The documentary is built like a good news story: An issue is raised; people who come down on one side of the issue have their say; people on the other side of the issue have their say; the viewers are left to draw their own conclusions.

"It's a thematic portrait, not a chronological portrait," Whitney said. "It is not exhaustive, it is not comprehensive, it is thematic. ... I think film is at its best when it chooses a few big ideas and pursues them."

Working with both Mormon and non-Mormon consultants, "I have chosen, I hope not arbitrarily, what I felt to be the defining ideas and themes and events in Mormon history that would help outsiders go inside the church," Whitney said.

(The LDS Church cooperated with Whitney but had no part in the production and no input into the final product.)

Part 1 of "The Mormons" deals mostly with the LDS Church's history; Part 2 looks at the modern-day church.

Part 1 is broken into six acts — "Revelation," "The Saints," "Persecution," "Exodus," "Mountain Meadows Massacre" and "Polygamy." Part 2 has five acts — "The Great Accommodation," "The Mission," "Dissenters and Exiles," "The Family" and "The Temple."

It's not rigidly divided. History, doctrine and personal stories are intermixed across the various acts.

Whitney mixes interviews with historians, authors, critics of the church, LDS general authorities and lay members with historical photos, drawings and modern film footage — all narrated by David Ogden Stiers.

Mormon politicians such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney are mentioned but not interviewed. The only politician interviewed on camera is Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah).

There is a lot that sheds a very favorable light on the LDS Church and its members, from sincere, committed Mormons talking about their missions to praise for the church's welfare system. A survivor of Hurricane Katrina says, "We were hearing stories on the radio of troops coming in, helicopters were flying over. We even heard the president was flying over in a big helicopter looking at us. But nobody was on the ground with us except for the Mormons."

Whitney found Betty Stevenson, an African-American convert in Oakland, Calif., who has a history of drug abuse and spent time in prison.

"She had this conversion that was so dramatic. And she was funny about it as well," Whitney said.

In the film, Stevenson says the missionaries "came in and told me the most preposterous story I have ever heard in my life. They told me about this white boy, a dead angel and some gold plates. And I thought, 'Mmm. I wonder what they on?"'

But she goes on to say, her voice breaking with emotion, "I found something inside of me that was responding to this message of hope."

"She embraced the religion, and her life was radically changed," Whitney said. "She was an interesting, sassy, irreverent person — sort of a walking advertisement of the best of Mormonism."

The documentary spends time with members of the Dalrymple family, who lost a wife and mother. And with the Tilleman-Dick family, who maintain their faith while dealing with their 23-year-old daughter's fatal heart condition — a segment that will break your heart no matter what your religious convictions.

There are also segments on the "Dissenters and Exiles" — people who have left the church; those who were excommunicated; those who criticize the church. Subjects like African-Americansand the priesthood, feminism, intellectualism and gays are addressed.

Margaret Merrill Toscano tells a moving story of her own excommunication. Former LDS Church member Trevor Southey talks about the struggles of being gay and Mormon.

Their pain is apparent, but they are not strident or angry.

Overall, Whitney did exactly what you would hope for from a documentarian — she reported it like she saw it, neither glorifying nor demonizing her subject.

Which is not to say that "The Mormons" is without flaws. A posting on the LDS Church's Web site has already questioned the documentary in two areas — the Mountain Meadows Massacre and present-day polygamists.

There's merit to that criticism. The Mountain Meadows Massacre segment runs 19:34, which seems somewhat excessive in light of the documentary's length.

And Whitney undercuts her own stated goal of dispelling stereotypes by spending seven minutes on modern-day polygamists. The documentary makes it clear they're not members of the LDS Church, so why confuse the issue?

Would a documentary on the Catholic Church suddenly digress into Lutherans?

And the talking heads who deliver their interpretations of various things related to Mormonism are not adequately identified. Viewers aren't told that Terryl Givens (identified as "author") is an active member of the LDS Church or that Will Bagley (identified as "historian") is a critic of the church.

It hardly seems fair that viewers are not made aware of where Bagley may be coming from when he says, "I'm convinced that (Mountain Meadows) was done explicitly at Brigham Young's orders." Particularly when the counterweight to that is Glen Leonard saying, "He didn't order it done and he didn't condone it," while a graphic identifies him as LDS Church historian.

There is no doubt that, simply because of its subject matter, "The Mormons" will draw criticism from both sides. Which is probably an indication that Whitney has done a lot right with the documentary.

"As someone from inside the culture who is in contention with the culture, I don't think it's in any way a whitewash or a promotional piece," Bagley told TV critics.

KUED's Ken Verdoia — who has not only produced some great documentaries about the LDS Church and Utah but is one of the best "talking heads" in "The Mormons" — knows how hard it can be to tackle a subject like this.

"Church members see it one way. People who look at it in a cold historical fact consider it another. And there's no easy telling of this history," he said. "When you wade into telling a story of faith, you are in very, very deep water very, very quickly.

"I've never seen anyone negotiate it better than Helen Whitney."

E-mail: [email protected]