Abigail Disney’s The Armor of Light raises the issue of gun control in the United States and its bearings on those of the Christian faith, but consistently reduces these matters to hotly contested moments of non-inquiry. It doesn’t trust the inherently complex material to speak for itself or care to consider its consequences beyond instances of manufactured, gut-wrenching immediacy.
Disney follows Reverend Rob Schenck, an anti-abortion pastor in Washington, D.C. who becomes concerned that his pro-gun stance might be at odds with his pro-life beliefs. When Schenck first appears on screen, it’s at an anti-abortion rally in Buffalo, New York, where he cradles an aborted fetus as he marches through the streets. But Disney, rather than calming the waters and approaching a conversation on less sensational terms, consistently uses manipulative music cues as a marker for emotional investment: When Schenck marches, he’s backed by guitar strings reminiscent of the theme song from something like the History Channel’s Pawn Stars.
As the documentary turns to gun violence, a soft piano track plays over the testimony of Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, whose killing garnered national headlines once the assailant pleaded not guilty because of Stand Your Ground laws. Plopping McBath in front of a camera to capture her tears and choked speech as she recounts hearing about her son being murdered is exploitative enough; layering it with melancholic music is outright sadistic.
The Armor of Light is a condescending propaganda piece whose targets are low-hanging fruit. For example, the film simply offers footage of Sarah Palin speaking at an NRA rally interspersed with cuts to overweight, white supporters without offering insightful commentary on why Palin’s rhetoric prevents meaningful legislation. Later, when Schenk goes to banter with fellow reverends, he consistently hears arguments backed by the NRA slogan that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and “Cars kill more people than guns. Should we outlaw them too?” Schenck claims to be flabbergasted by these responses, but that’s only because he’s apparently shielded himself from these kinds of public debates in years past, since comparable defenses have been used by the NRA for going on two and a half decades.
Were The Armor of Light released in 1993, it would at least be topical by introducing these commonplace and wholly fallible parapets supporting gun ownership to a wider audience. In 2015, it’s simply resurrecting the corpses of long-dead claims. Of course, one could rebut that since the second amendment remains on the books, the documentary possesses the same relevance it would have 20 years ago: to further bring those resistant to reason or logic away from their dogmatic principles. Such a premise might have purchase if the film devised its own pursuits deeper than waging a series of tiresome shouting matches against those opposing gun legislation. Disney never explores the geographical or historical overlap between gun ownership and evangelical belief. As such, the doc plays like a 10-minute CNN package painfully expanded to nine times that length.