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October 13, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Movie’s portrayal of fatherhood’s issues lives up to its name

For three summers, I had the good fortune to watch and listen to Tony Dungy day after day.

The practices occurred at the most scenic of settings for an NFL training camp — the serene, wooded grounds of the Rose-Hulman campus. As idyllic as it sounds, though, Dungy and his team usually worked in the suffocating humidity that comes with August in Indiana. In such an atmosphere, a player’s concentration can drain almost as fast as he sweats.

Yet, those Indianapolis Colts — almost to a man — listened each time their coach spoke. And they did so even though Dungy never seemed to come unraveled or rant at them like his hair was on fire.

Why did those guys pay such attention to Dungy?

Two simple reasons — they respected him, and he made sense. Not surprisingly, they won games, lots of them, including a Super Bowl.

So when Tony Dungy recommends something, it’s worth checking out. That applies to a new film that focuses intensely on a cause Dungy has long championed, responsible fatherhood. “Courageous” follows five men with common problems in their behaviors and backgrounds, dealing with common consequences that accompany their issues. Four of them, co-workers as county sheriff’s deputies in Georgia, give full efforts on their jobs while their families get what’s left of them.

A gut-wrenching tragedy strikes one family and jolts all four officers into rethinking their priorities. A fifth guy serendipitously wanders into the mix as a hired hand who battles unemployment but leans, significantly, on his spiritual faith.

Together, the men make a pact to become fully involved in the lives of their kids.

“As men, we could all take a lesson from them and ask ourselves, ‘What can I do to be a more involved dad?’ ” Dungy wrote in a USA Today essay after watching “Courageous.”

Dungy has worked since 1997 in the All Pro Dad program operated by the nonprofit Family First organization, and many of the same cultural realities that group confronts are not-so-subtlely explored in “Courageous.” Kids who have little or no contact with their father are more likely to live in poverty, struggle in school, and experience health and behavioral problems, Dungy wrote. Likewise, the characters in “Courageous” — especially lead actors Adam Mitchell (played by co-writer and director Alex Kendrick) and Nathan Hayes (played by retired Marine Ken Bevel) — enumerate societal ills connected to children growing up without an involved father.

To be sure, the film carries an overt, faith-based message. That’s no surprise, because “Courageous” is the fourth independent movie produced by brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who are pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. Bevel is also a pastor there. In fact, many of the cast members are church volunteers. Alex Kendrick and Bevel also played roles in the church’s three previous movies — “Flywheel” (2003), “Facing the Giants” (2006) and “Fireproof” (2008). With each of those releases, the Kendricks surprised Hollywood with the response of moviegoers. “Fireproof,” for example, cost $500,000 to make, but grossed $33.5 million as the best-selling independent film of 2008.

“Courageous” is on pace to top those numbers. It drew more fans on its debut weekend (beginning Sept. 30) than any other film in the nation.

Dungy’s endorsement isn’t an obligatory gesture. The film is solid, stirring and funny in places. More so, it’s a gut-check for anybody who sits down in the theater, especially fathers. It’s not perfect; some characters use a “Dragnet”-style, just-the-facts-ma’am delivery. But the situations portrayed are poignant and heart-rending. A scene in which Adam Mitchell — once too busy and too detached for his family — finally makes good on a simple request for his time by his young daughter is one of the most gripping moments in a family movie in years.

Dungy connected with the Mitchell character. “I think that was me for a long while,” he said in an interview with LifeWay Christian Resources. “I was into my job. I wanted my kids to do great, but I knew I had some issues and I recognized I needed to be able to spend more quality time with my kids.”

Fellow cast members may offer connections for others. Deputy Hayes never knew his father. Another officer sees his son only a couple times a month. Another has a daughter he’s never seen. Javier, the hired hand, fights to maintain faith and home life with his wife and two young kids despite the hardships of a job layoff. They fail. They succeed. They commit to doing better.

The value of their efforts is rarely so distinctly depicted on cinema screens. In that respect, and many others, “Courageous” lives up to its name.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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