Reel Reviews

‘The Divine Plan’

Audience: A-II – adults and adolescents


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The Pope and the President

In theaters for one night only Wednesday, Nov. 6, the feature-length documentary “The Divine Plan” (Nexus Media) begins by introducing its two main figures, former actors who knew how to work a crowd: St. John Paul II and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. God gave them the biggest stage possible and they took to it with consummate skill.

They used it, moreover, it to achieve the end of the Cold War and the fall of Soviet communism. The question posed by filmmaker Robert Orlando is this: Was their work toward those ends a coincidence of history or part of a divine plan?

Ironically, it was two acts of violence that came to link pope and president: unsuccessful assassination attempts only six weeks apart.

On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. opened fire as Reagan exited a Washington hotel after a speaking engagement. On May 13, 1981, St. John Paul was making his way around St. Peter’s Square greeting pilgrims from the open-air popemobile when Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish national, opened fire, wounding the pontiff. As men of faith, both took their survival as a sign that God was not finished using them to do good in the world.

The first meeting between Reagan and the pope took place in June 1982, even before the president made history by appointing the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. (The United States had had consular relations with the Papal States from 1797 to 1867 and various presidents in the interim had sent personal envoys to the Vatican.)

When the Solidarity movement in Poland, led by Lech Walesa, picked up speed, Reagan and John Paul knew the time was ripe to take firm steps toward ending the Cold War. Around the same time, change was happening in the Soviet Union with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and his promotion of reforms.

Bill Casey, a Catholic who headed the Central Intelligence Agency under Reagan, became the go-between in their behind-the-scenes collaboration, a partnership that came to be dubbed “The Holy Alliance.” It was spurred on by a shared outlook on the moral dimensions of the Cold War, especially communism’s disregard for the inherent dignity of the human person.

“The Divine Plan” features a wide variety of interviews. Some are with church insiders like Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and papal biographer George Weigel. Others are with political authors such as Anne Applebaum and John O’Sullivan. Especially interesting is input from Richard V. Allen, who began as Reagan’s foreign policy guru from 1977 to 1980 and was then appointed as his first national security adviser.

Unfortunately, the poorly handled visual aspect of “The Divine Plan” distracts from the fascinating story. The graffiti-like graphics are simplistic and overused. Transitions from art to interviews are jarring and rough. The sets for the interviews were dark and thus fail to reflect the hopeful subject matter of the film.

Even so, this is a wonderful addition to the history of relations between the United States and the Catholic Church, especially in our time when religion and politics are both so divisive. By presenting the way these two leaders put their faith into practice, the movie challenges each viewer to “contribute a verse,” as poet Walt Whitman put it, to the betterment of the world by discerning and following God’s plan.

Does the documentary answer its central question? Opinions may differ. But the quote from St. John Paul with which “The Divine Plan” closes speaks for itself: “A coincidence,” he remarked, “is what a believer calls divine providence.”

For screening information, go to:

The film contains mature themes and some potentially disturbing historical images. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II – adults and adolescents. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.

By Sister Hosea Rupprecht, Catholic News Service

Copyright ©2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops


Audience: A-III – adults


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Heroine of the Underground Railroad

“Harriet” (Focus) is a long overdue drama chronicling the exploits of the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, Maryland-born Harriet Tubman. 

The film’s greatest asset comes in the form of Cynthia Erivo, a veteran of the London stage who breathes spirit and pathos into the titular character. The film celebrates life and reminds audiences of the price some of our forebears had to pay for the freedoms we enjoy. 

As the action opens, Tubman – known to her family and owners as Minty – and her husband, John (Zackary Momoh), are planning to start a family. But they want their children to be born free, which will only be possible if Minty herself is liberated.

Both John and Minty’s father, Ben (Clarke Peters), are free laborers at a nearby farm. Since a previous owner had promised Rit (Vanessa Bell Calloway), Minty’s mother, her liberty at age 45 but had never followed through, they petition her current owner, Edward Brodess (Mike Marunde), to honor the agreement – and include Minty, but to no avail.

When Brodess dies suddenly – an eventuality for which the God-fearing Minty had desperately prayed – his son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), not only refuses to emancipate Minty, but threatens to sell her South. So she decides to run. Not wanting to risk John’s freedom, she insists on going without him. 

It’s no spoiler to say that she made it over the Pennsylvania border to freedom in 1849 and, after connecting with abolitionists such as William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae), become involved in their activities. 

Once Minty escapes and takes on the free name of Harriet (after her mother), the plot begins to lag. The tense moments that could have made this film worthy of its subject are absent. 

The repeated trips Tubman heroically made back into Maryland to gather her family and other slaves quickly begin to feel repetitious. Some suspense is added to the story with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, legislation that forced Tubman to smuggle slaves all the way to Canada.

Despite its flaws, “Harriet” does give due attention to the role faith played in Tubman’s life. A head injury suffered as a child caused her to have “visions,” but she considered these as communications from God guiding her in her journeys. In one especially moving scene when things seem futile, steadfast Harriet insists that God will not let her band of travelers come to harm.

Given the significance of the history “Harriet” depicts, many parents may think it acceptable for teens, despite the elements listed below.

The film contains racial slurs and a few crude and crass terms. The Catholic New Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. 

By Sister Hosea Rupprecht, Catholic News Service

Copyright ©2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Monthly List of Recent Film Ratings (June 2015)

CNS classifications: A-I: general patronage; A-II: adults and adolescents; A-III: adults; L: limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling; O: morally offensive.
MPAA ratings: G: general audiences. All ages admitted; PG: parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children; PG-13: parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13; R: restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian; NC-17: no one 17 and under admitted.

The Age of Adaline, A-III (PG-13)
Aloha, A-II (PG-13)
Avengers: Age of Ultron, A-III (PG-13)
The Awakening, A-III (R)
Begin Again, A-III (R)
Chappie, L (R)
Child 44, A-III (R)
Cinderella, A-I (PG)
The D Train, O (R)
Danny Collins, A-III (R)
The Divergent Series: Insurgent, A-III (PG-13)
Do You Believe?, A-II (PG-13)
Dream House, L (PG-13)
The DUFF, A-III (PG-13)
Ex Machina, O (R)
Far from the Madding Crowd, A-II (PG-13)
Focus, L (R)
Furious 7, A-III (PG-13)
Get Hard, O (R)
The Gunman, L (R)
Home, A-I (PG)
Hot Pursuit, A-III (PG-13)
It Follows, O (R)
Jupiter Ascending, A-III (PG-13)
Kingsman: The Secret Service, A-III (R)
The Last Exorcism Part II, L (PG-13)
The Lazarus Effect, A-III (PG-13)
Little Boy, A-II (PG-13)
The Longest Ride, A-III (PG-13)
Mad Max: Fury Road, L (R)
Marie's Story, A-II (not rated)
McFarland, USA, A-II (PG)
Monkey Kingdom, A-I (G)
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, A-I (PG)
Pitch Perfect 2, A-III (PG-13)
Poltergeist, A-III (PG-13)
Project Almanac, A-III (PG-13)
The Pyramid, A-III (R)
Run All Night, L (R)
San Andreas, A-III (PG-13)
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, A-III (PG)
Seventh Son, A-II (PG-13)
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, A-I (PG)
Tomorrowland, A-II (PG)
The Trip to Italy, A-III (not rated)
True Story, A-III (R)
Unfinished Business, O (R)
Unfriended, O (R)
The Water Diviner, A-III (R)
Woman in Gold, A-II (PG-13)

Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops