The only time I’ve cried more during a movie than the first time I saw The Armor of Light was probably the second time I saw The Armor of Light. Abigail Disney’s documentary about a rare confluence of Evangelical Christianity and gun control isn’t afraid to go for the emotional jugular — indeed, some may dismiss it as being too manipulative — and it subtly lets you know in advance that it’s about to be relentless. In its opening scenes, we see archival footage of one of the film’s main subjects, Reverend Rob Schenck, back when he was a young preacher protesting a Buffalo abortion clinic in the 1980s. At one point during the protest, he carries what appears to be a small preserved fetus in his hands, as cries rain down on him to be ashamed of himself. It’s a tactic that, for Schenck and his supporters at least, conveys the all-consuming immediacy of their position. Manipulative? Sure. Shameless? Maybe, depending on your politics. Effective? Holy crap, yes. Some might claim the same for this enormously powerful, sure-to-be controversial movie: It’s not afraid to “go there,” as they say. But far beyond the courage of its convictions, The Armor of Light also has the intelligence and grace to embrace its contradictions. It’s a beautiful, conflicted piece of work.
There are two connected strands that dominate the film. The first is the journey of Schenck, who, after that opening salvo, recounts the crisis of conscience he had when an anti-abortion nutjob shot Barnett Slepian, the abortion provider who operated out of the clinic the preacher was protesting in those early scenes. “People under my spiritual care are capable of this,” Schenck recalls himself thinking. “It probably means I’m capable of it.” And for him, the idea of killing another human is a deal-breaker; the sanctity of life is the organizing principle behind everything he does. (As he puts it: “If we believe life begins at conception, there’s a whole lot of life after conception, until natural death.”) This line of questioning puts Schenck — who is ordained as a missionary in Washington, D.C., and whose organization is based in the nation’s capital — on a collision course with what he describes as his “natural constituency” in and around the halls of power. Pictures of him with the likes of Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Clarence Thomas adorn his office.
The second strand, however, is the one that really gets you. It’s the story of Lucia McBath, an African-American flight attendant whose 17-year-old son Jordan Davis was gunned down in 2012 by 45-year-old Michael David Dunn at a Jacksonville gas station, after Dunn complained about the loud music emanating from the car in which Jordan and his friends were riding; in court, Dunn cited Florida’s (insane, evil, stupid, disgusting) “Stand Your Ground” laws as his defense. Disney isn’t afraid to show us McBath’s unbearable, almost unwatchable grief, as she recounts all her hopes and dreams and fears about raising her son, and the way that people described him as her “shadow” because he was always by her side. The grief doesn’t stop. She has to relive it in court as Jordan’s X-ray is put up on display, slowing how a bullet went through his liver, through both his lungs, and “shredded his aorta.” Even after she becomes an activist for gun control and tries to find meaning behind her horror, the grief doesn’t stop. Late in the film, we see her break down during one of many marches, wailing, “I want him to be here.” McBath, the daughter of a former head of the NAACP, has activism in her DNA, but she’d happily give it all up just to have her boy by her side again.
Schenck and McBath make unlikely allies in the campaign for gun control, though they’re both deeply devout. And interestingly, the film is less interested in what these two people are doing together than in watching their unique struggles — she with her grief, and he with his conscience. As such, The Armor of Light is structurally quite loose, almost free-form; it feels at times like it’s not quite sure which strand to follow. The film’s most fascinating moments — if not its most emotional ones — come when Schenck engages with his fellow pro-life and conservative pastors and activists, facing them down as they confront him with NRA talking points and creative scenarios straight out of Dirty Harry movies. (In one particularly testy confrontation, held in an intimate meeting in a back-room bar in Washington, D.C., one guy comes at him with the immortally stupid line, “An armed society is a polite society.”)
But again, The Armor of Light — for all its passion and urgency — is a film that embraces contradictions. Schenck, who was actually raised Jewish, sees consistency in his beliefs — for him, being pro-life doesn’t stop at birth. (“If you see the world as very narrow,” he says at one point, “and that there’s a certain narrow category of good people whose lives should be preserved, and then there’s all these other bad creatures whose lives don’t matter, or can be easily taken away … that contradicts God’s view of the world.” That’s an incredibly articulate way of describing a particularly virulent strain of fear and fanaticism one finds all over the world — often among people who profess to be on the side of God.) But it’s Schenck’s willingness to embrace the other side that jumps out at you, the grace with which he confronts those with whom he disagrees. He’s the rare kind of activist who’s willing to go into the belly of the beast, because he understands that he might actually be a part of it. Admirably, the film goes right there with him.