Release Date:  October 10, 2008 (select cities)
Rating:  PG (for thematic material including some disturbing images, brief language and smoking)
Genre:  Drama, Biopic, Religion
Run Time:  1 hr. 38 min.
Director:  Robby Benson
Actors:   Martin Landau, Armie Hammer, Lindsay Wagner, Jennifer O'Neill, Josh Turner, Stefanie Butler, Kristoffer Polaha

More than just the beginnings of arguably the world’s most well-known and respected evangelist, Billy:  The Early Years is the story of two friends, of two roads taken and of two ways to make a biopic. 

Largely guided from the perspective (using narration and flashback) of preacher-evangelist Charles Templeton (the older Charles played by Martin Landau, the younger by Kristoffer Polaha), Billy:  The Early Years sets the stage in a hospice room where a documentary crew is filming. 

Literally on his death bed (he died in 2001 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s), Templeton is being interviewed about his career and his close friendship with Billy Graham (Armie Hammer).

Templeton had arrived on the evangelist circuit a little before Graham.  Once a young sports cartoonist, the Canadian soon turned to preaching after his conversion.  At the same time, Graham had just graduated from high school near Charlotte, N.C. and had also given his life to Christ at a revival meeting.

After graduating from Wheaton College in 1943 and marrying his college sweetheart, Ruth Bell (Stefanie Butler), Graham briefly pastored a church and hosted the “Songs in the Night” radio program before becoming the president of Northwestern College in Minnesota.  Later, after Graham met Templeton, the two co-founded the international ministry Youth for Christ.

During this seemingly fruitful time period, Graham and Templeton began to take two different roads.  “He went down his path.  I went down another,” admits the older Templeton to the documentary’s camera.  Templeton began doubting God and the infallibility of Scripture.  “What if it’s wrong?” he says heatedly to Graham in one scene.  “These are stories written by feeble men like you and me, attempting to answer the questions of life.  I feel sorry for you, Billy.  What you call faith is the death of intellect.”  Templeton later declared himself an agnostic and announced his departure from ministry in 1959. 

Billy:  The Early Years ends with the Tent Revival in Los Angeles, Calif., in 1949.  Originally only scheduled to run for three weeks, the meetings went on for two months and are considered the launching point for Graham’s worldwide ministry.  The film’s final moments recreate a portion of Billy’s message to the crowd, as he exhorts them to follow Jesus—the man whose ministry of only three years continues to cause millions upon millions throughout history to bow down and worship him as their Redeemer.

While its subject matter is fascinating and the exemplary life lived should give us pause, Billy:  The Early Years does not live up to the quality of previous biopics (Amazing Grace, Shadowlands) which artfully depict other great heroes of the Christian faith.

This could have been a tale told in a much more sophisticated manner, but instead has been conveyed with too much schmaltz, random comic relief, and a script that leaves more questions than answers (especially for those not familiar with Graham’s life).  Partly to blame is the rough direction by Robby Benson (once a teen heartthrob in Ice Castles, later the voice of The Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast).  Poor usage of split screen, flashback, slow-motion and superimposed imaging only hinders and fails to add any artistic merit to the finished work or value to the viewers’ experience.