Movie Review: 'Angels & Demons'

Ron Howard's new movie Angels & Demons had a very successful weekend opening. Like Da Vinci Code, the movie has attracted criticism from the Catholic Church. Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and culture editor of the weekly Catholic magazine America, gives his review.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. And today, we're trying something a little different: a movie review. Ron Howard's new picture "Angels & Demons" opened last Friday and then topped "Star Trek" as the number one picture at the box office over the weekend. The movie's a sequel to novelist Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." And like "The Da Vinci Code," it stars Tom Hanks as a Harvard University symbologist. And like Dan Brown's novels and the earlier film, "Angels & Demons" attracted criticism from the Catholic Church.

The Vatican called on the faithful to boycott the film. And reviewers for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called it historical and religious poppycock. The plot is complicated but revolves around conflict within the church between scientific reason and religion - an old, old story.

(Soundbite of movie, "Angels & Demons")

Mr. EWAN McGREGOR (Actor): (As Camerlengo Patrick McKenna) Since the days of Galileo, this Church has tried to slow the relentless march of progress, sometimes with misguided means, but science and religion are not enemies. There are simply some things that science is just too young to understand, so the church pleads stop, slow down, think, wait and for this they call us backward.

CONAN: Throw in a sinister conspiracy, murders and a plot to destroy Vatican City and, well, there you have a number one film.

If you've seen the movie, give us a call. Is it unfair? The phone number: 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Father James Martin is culture editor of the weekly Catholic magazine, America, and joins us today for the studio at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Nice of you to be with us.

Father JAMES MARTIN (Culture Editor, America): Thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And before we get to the controversies about the film, how did you like it as a movie?

Father MARTIN: I give it a C-plus. You know, I thought the - visually, it was very impressive. I liked all the CGI stuff. I know that they weren't allowed to film in the Vatican. But, you know, you really feel like you're at St. Peter's Basilica when you see Ewan McGregor running across. Yeah, I thought it was a little ridiculous. I didn't think it was nearly as offensive as "Angels & Demons."

But, you know, it's diverting. I wouldn't spend $12 on it. I might wait until it, you know, shows up on Netflix. But, you know, so C-plus, B-minus.

CONAN: But you get paid to go see these things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father MARTIN: Actually, I don't get paid anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father MARTIN: I take a vow of poverty, but I go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And I think you misspoke. You said you didn't think it was as offensive as "Angels & Demons." I assume you meant "The Da Vinci Code."

Father MARTIN: Oh, correct.

CONAN: Okay.

Father MARTIN: I got some sort of Freudian slip there.

CONAN: That's okay. But did you find it offensive?

Father MARTIN: I'd say in places. I mean, that - I'm glad you played that speech by Ewan McGregor serving up that little juicy piece of ham. I mean, speaking of chewing up scenery.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father MARTIN: I mean, I really thought that that was ridiculous. I mean, you know, this notion that the Catholic Church has always and everywhere blocked science. You know, I was listening earlier, talking about anti-Semitism and, you know, the old line that anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals. I mean, you know, there's Barack Obama speaking at Notre Dame, you think about the great history of sort of Catholic universities and stuff like that. So that had me rolling my eyes a bit.

And I have a friend who's - who works at the Vatican. He's an astrophysicist. And, you know, you can tell him that - you know, he's a PhD from MIT. You can tell him that there's, you know, that the Vatican blocked science. So, you know, that was slightly offensive.

I thought the whole thing where the cardinals get tortured, there's three different cardinals that got tortured in three different ways. One gets his face eating out by rats, another one gets, let's see, burned alive, another one's drowned. So there's a bit of - I just felt it was little over the top.

CONAN: But this is by bad guys, at least the torturers are not portrayed as good guys.

Father MARTIN: Yeah. Nonetheless, it seemed to me like the movie took a little too much glee in sort of portraying these, you know, the sort of the end of these sort of powerful cardinals. But like I said, it wasn't that offensive. I just thought as a movie, it was just kind of, you know, it was sort of bland, basically.

CONAN: And…

Father MARTIN: But good CGI. And I'm not trying to be - I'm not trying to damn it with feigned praise. I really just thought it was, you know, it was okay.

CONAN: And the CGI…

Father MARTIN: My theological opinion.

CONAN: The computer graphics that are put on the screen.

Father MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, it was pretty impressive. You had these great shots of St. Peter's Square after the pope, the sort of fictional pope is elected. You have - I think one of the most interesting things is they have some of the guys running right across the length of St. Peter's church, you know, which is pretty impressive.

I was happy that Tom Hanks cut his hair. I thought that the plot about the matter and antimatter was fairly interesting, if ridiculous. There's a plot twist at the end that I have to say even I didn't see coming, which was, you know, was kind of exciting.

But, you know, I don't think it's anything for people to get, you know, not to coin a phrase, exorcised about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: After all it's just a movie.

Father MARTIN: It is just a movie.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. What did you think of "Angels & Demons," the number one picture in America this weekend? And in particular, did you think it was fair or unfair to the Catholic Church? 800-989-8255: e-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's see if we can begin with Henry(ph). Henry calling us Margate in Florida.

HENRY (Caller): Yes, hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

HENRY: I saw the movie, and I thought it was fair. Now, if the Vatican is going to insist on keeping itself behind locked doors, then we as citizens and people are free to interpret the Vatican whichever way we want. They can put a stop to these you know, by opening their doors and let the researchers get in there and, you know, see for themselves what is it - what are they hiding, you know? So it's up to the Vatican, the ball is in their court.

CONAN: And when you mean keep themselves behind closed doors, keeping archives and that sort of thing off the record?

HENRY: Yeah. Oh, surely.

CONAN: It's not…

HENRY: You remember the God's banker, the guy who was (unintelligible) London, we don't even know how he died. What was he doing over there? They won't tell us anything. So, I believe the moviemakers and the people like myself, we are free to write whatever we want to write about the Vatican. And if they don't like it, open up.

CONAN: Father Martin, the caller raises a bunch of things. But nevertheless, I think he's talking about archives and pictures like that as opposed to the Vatican's refusal to let the filmmakers at film inside the Vatican.

Father MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, you know, that comment really shows, I think, the effect of lot of a Dan Brown's work. I mean, people take it as a fact. He's always talking about this research and all this kind of stuff. But, I mean, you know, it's hard to respond to something like that.

Basically, you know, the Vatican has what are called secret archives which are basically private archives. And they have a lock and key on them for purposes, you know, like any sort of archives would until people are dead, basically. So, but, I mean, you know, scholars do use the Vatican archives. They go in to the Vatican library. I mean, you can go into the Sistine Chapel, you can see everything they have.

So, you know, this notion that because some things in the Vatican are kept secret means that there's this big conspiracy or that anyone can write anything they want to about the Vatican. It's like saying, because that I don't know about your family, I'm going to write whatever I want. It's a little over the top, so.

CONAN: And, Henry, thanks very much for the call. But a lot of people would say, look, you know, there's another sequence of pictures that does kind of the same thing to the U.S. government, the "National Treasure" series, which suggests that all this kind of secrets locked up in desks in the White House.

Father MARTIN: I think the difference is this - actually, I like those "National Treasure" movies - I think the difference is, you know, when I turn on like the History Channel or watch Dan Brown on anything, he's always trumpeting these facts that he's unearthed. And even "The Da Vinci Code" starts of with, you know, these are these facts and I'm building this story on them. So a lot of PR, even - I was on the subway the other day, one of the posters says something like, the truth will be revealed. Much of the PR of the movie is directed towards this idea that they are unearthing these previously unknown facts, whereas something like "National Treasure" makes it pretty clear that this is just sort of a fantasy.

So, I think, you know, I give talks in a lot of Catholic churches. And after "The Da Vinci Code" came out, you know, people would ask me why didn't the Vatican ever tell us this? So, somehow, sort of, in the absence of a lot of theological knowledge about the church, people are taking what I would call this kind of theological junk food and using that and drawing these conclusions from it.

So that's my only concern that people are actually seeing this as factual material, which is, you know, I think born out by the last caller.

CONAN: Let's get Alice on the line. Alice with us from Pacifica, California.

ALICE (Caller): I find - what I find most offensive about Dan Brown is he constantly implies that he's, you know, is making some kind of statements about - true statements about history. I'm not a Catholic. I'm a serious historian of late antiquity of the Medieval period.

And I can tell you Dan Brown doesn't even have a remote clue about how serious historians approach the past and how we know what we know about the past and what we don't know about the past. He's freely mixing checks, you know, from the second century to the 19th century and spinning all sorts of, you know, a fictional account of an earlier work that made all sorts of, you know, allegations about, you know, a number of different things, you know, from the second century to the 19th century.

CONAN: So…

None of which, you know, there's a scrap of evidence for any of it. And as I as somebody who's - tries to have to teach medieval and late antique history to students at universities, what I find very disturbing about this is that, you know, to actually learn the real history from our actual primary sources that we can date reliably is often boring and, you know, people don't want to do, the real hard work of actually reading only the text that come from a date that we know is the date or at a approximate century rather than mixing freely all kinds of theories, bringing in your pet peeves against the Catholic church into places where it doesn't belong. For example, we know quite a bit about what the Council of Nicea was. When you look at the primary sources, it has - none of them - it didn't have absolutely anything to do with the canon of the Bible or anything if you actually look at what was going on there.

CONAN: But that might explain why novels tend to outsell histories.

ALICE: Yes, exactly. People don't want to learn real history because it's often much more difficult…

CONAN: And complicated and provides many fewer cardinals being murdered.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALICE: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: Alice, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

ALICE: Sure.

CONAN: The cherry-picking across a couple of millennia of archives as Alice suggests is, well, it's a - I get - well, novelists can get away with it, historians really can't.

Father MARTIN: Well, yeah, they can, if they're clear that it's a novel. But once again, Dan - you know, you see him on TV, and it's all about his research and I've unearthed this. And here's this big truth. It's not quite as bad in "Angels & Demons" as it was in "The Da Vinci Code." I think, well, you know, there's another sort of trope of novels where, like, I always compare it to, like, a Tom Clancy novel.

If you're reading a Tom Clancy novel, and he starts talking about nuclear submarines, right? You have some experts come on the scene, and he says now, let me tell you about a nuclear submarine. You know, normally the reader says, well, this guy is probably, sort of, a mouthpiece for the truth. You know, you're going to learn something about nuclear warheads and how many people can fit in a submarine and stuff like that. When the Tom Hanks character comes on screen, or the Robert Langdon character comes on the page, and starts spouting this so-called historical stuff, it's false.

And I think people get confused by that trope. And you know, as your caller was saying, they take that in. And the sad thing is, I mean, it really does sort of, in a subtle way, turn people against the church and against religion. And you know, frankly it makes my job a lot harder, because you have to say, well, that's really not the truth. And then when you do, what happens is people say, well, you're just part of the big conspiracy that I read about. So it's you know, sort of damned if you do, damned if you don't.

CONAN: Our guest on the Opinion Page this week, Father James Martin, culture editor of the weekly Catholic magazine, America. We're talking about "Angels & Demons."

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's Lauren(ph) e-mailing us from Carson City in Nevada: I like the movie a lot, but I have a huge problem with the book. Dan Brown claims that the facts and maps are correct, not true. My family and I tried to get to Santa Maria della Vittoria when we were in Rome, and we wandered around lost, lost, lost, trying to find this church. We still contend that Mr. Brown lied to us. Well, I think that maybe the least of his problems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father MARTIN: Yeah. The book as a map of Rome - I had heard that from some friends that he doesn't even have his basic geography right. I hate to keeping jumping on him, but you know, you'd think - also it's funny, I'm reading a book now, I have a fact checker. And it's not that hard to find them, you know? But, I don't know, maybe he didn't want to do that.

CONAN: Let's go to Amos(ph). Amos calling from Salt Lake City.

AMOS (Caller): Hey, guys. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

AMOS: I haven't seen the movie, but I have read the book. And to me, it seems like all this furor about, you know, everybody jumping on Dan Brown for, you know, quote, unquote, "attacking the Catholic church," it just seems - it's just seems almost like a form of - I hate to be comparable to racism. And I think it's ridiculous because, I mean, what if the roles were reversed and the bad, you know, the antagonist was a scientist and the protagonist was, you know, a member of the Catholic Church? It just seems like, you know, whether the facts are right or not, people should just be able to enjoy it as a movie and not really worry about what the context is for the antagonist and the protagonist.

CONAN: How did you - Amos, expand a minute: you brought up the word racism, how did you mean it here?

AMOS: Well, you know, in a way that they say that he's anti-Catholic and all, you could almost insert he's almost anti-Italian or something like that in the same…

CONAN: Ah, so it's bigotry not racism you're talking about.

AMOS: Oh yes. Exactly yes, sir.

CONAN: Okay. We just want to make that clear. Okay.

AMOS: And just another interesting thing to point out, "Angels & Demons" is actually a prequel to "The Da Vinci Code."

CONAN: Which is - was published first but the picture was made second, so we think of it as a sequel. But maybe that's why, Father Martin, he cut his hair because it grew out for the second movie.

Father MARTIN: I hope so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: Well, thanks for having me on. I'll listen to comments off the air.

CONAN: All right, Amos. Thanks very much. Appreciate it. Here's an e-mail from Sarah(ph). I think the Catholic Church underestimates the intelligence of its followers. Movies are entertainment. It's difficult to imagine that true believers in Catholicism would question their faith over a Tom Hanks movie. I think she does have a point.

Father MARTIN: I think, yeah. I don't think they'll question their faith. But they certainly will question their church history and what the church has taught them. I mean, right after "The Da Vinci Code" came out, as I was saying, I was giving a couple of talks and people in a very upscale, intelligent parish said to me: why did the church never tell us that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married? And you know, I think that while people are very - you know, Catholics are very faithful, they may not know a whole lot of church history in terms of the Illuminati and Mary Magdalene, Jesus, the early disciples, those kinds of things. And so, into that vacuum comes Dan Brown.

And I think your caller had a good point. I mean, I don't want to say anti-Catholicism is anywhere near as bad as, say, racism or anti-Semitism or something like that, but it is around. And you know, the old saying no one ever went broke attacking the church, I think, is probably applicable.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller. And Nathan(ph) calling from Cincinnati.

NATHAN (Caller): Hello. Well, thanks for having me on. I - just a comment, I read "Angels & Demons" and - haven't seen the film yet though - but I read a lot of historical fiction, whether it's Patrick O'Brian or C.S. Forester. I read Tom Clancy. And it's just, there is - while I enjoy historical fiction, and I guess this could be, I guess, contemporary historical fiction in a sense - Dan Brown is very different in that finding the difference, delineating the difference, or understanding the difference between the fact and the fiction is very difficult when reading his books.

But with Tom Clancy it seems very clear, you know, what's fact, what's fiction. You read all the (unintelligible) novels. You can, you know, it mentions the (unintelligible) but you understand between fact and fiction. Whereas in "Angels and Demons," throughout entire novel, I was going, well, is this true? Is that true?

CONAN: So, it's that claim - it's that blurring of the line that you have problems?

Father MARTIN: Yeah.

NATHAN: Very much a blurring I mean, you have to do research to understand what's fact and what's fiction. And I as a comment, too, on that map, it is acknowledged, I don't know who's acknowledged in his book, but I know for a fact that he did play fast and loose with the map of Rome.

CONAN: Okay.

NATHAN: And I guess that's been acknowledged. The sites that he, I think, form a cross or something like that on the map of Rome as I recall from the novel, anyway, those buildings aren't exactly located in those places if they exist at all.

CONAN: Nathan, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

NATHAN: Well, thank you with the program.

CONAN: And Father martin, thank you so much for your time today.

Father MARTIN: My pleasure.

CONAN: Father James Martin is the culture editor of the weekly Catholic magazine, America, and joined us from a studio at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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