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Dan Webster reviews " Under the Banner of Heaven"

“Under the Banner of Heaven” is the latest attempt to portray real-life events in a fictional context, Dan Webster says in his movie review.
In an attempt to seek guidance, or wisdom – maybe even both – some of us look to those sages from our shared past who boast the most acute minds. Samuel Clemens, better known as the writer Mark Twain, is one such sage. In 1897 Twain wrote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

That quote came to mind this past week as I finished watching the seven-episode Hulu miniseries “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Based on the 2003 nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer, the series revolves around the 1984 murder of a Utah woman named Brenda Lafferty (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter Erica.

The events of the crime involve the Lafferty family, which Brenda had married into. In particular, it involves her brothers-in-law Ron and Dan who had become proponents of a fundamentalist sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was they (played respectively by Sam Worthington and Wyatt Russell) who committed the murders because Brenda helped Ron’s wife decide to leave him and because she refused to bow to their authority.

Krakauer’s book, like the miniseries, is both a retelling of the murders, of how and why they were committed, and a study – a condemnation, really – of the LDS Church itself. Yet unlike the book, which takes pains to stick to documented facts, the miniseries concocts a fictional backstory. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black – who won an Oscar for the 2009 movie “Milk” – was raised in a Mormon household. And he has said in interviews that he invented the character of Jeb Pyre (a police detective and devout Mormon played by Andrew Garfield) as a way to portray the conflict between notions of faith and the facts that Krakauer’s book scrutinizes.

Pyre finds himself mired in a predicament, investigating two brutal murders and, in the process, having to confront views of his religion that clash with the church’s official teachings. The internal conflict weighs on him, fueled by long discussions with Brenda Lafferty’s husband Allen (played by Billy Howle). It is through those discussions that Pyre begins to slowly – all too slowly – figure out what really happened. And then he has to decide whether he can, in good conscience, continue believing in his church, even if abandoning it means losing his family.

Meanwhile, we see in flashback how Brenda was always destined to clash with her in-laws. She is a BYU graduate who dreams of a career as a TV newscaster, while the Laffertys are a dysfunctional group whose values are shaped by a dictatorial, cruel patriarch (played by Christopher Heyerdahl).

We see also the origins of the church itself, as told by non-Mormon sources, dating back to LDS founder Joseph Smith, his murder and the assumption of power by Brigham Young. It is Young who both takes the flock to Utah territory – and who embodies the practice of polygamy that, more than a century later, the fundamentalist Lafferty brothers embrace.

And, too, screenwriter Black – again creating characters for emphasis – introduces Pyre’s detective partner, Bill Taba (played by Gil Birmingham), a member of the Paiute tribe and distinctly non-Mormon. It is through Taba that Black addresses the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, another story of early Mormonism that is news to Det. Pyre (if not Taba, among others).

The acting across the board in “Under the Banner of Heaven” is superb, especially by Garfield and Howle, with Russell being a chilling revelation. The problems come with the length (did we really need seven episodes?), not to mention the dramatic inventions, which feel altogether too convenient. And then there’s how the Lafferty brothers are portrayed, which is as crazed zealots instead of something far scarier and more common: cold-hearted true-believers who claim to know the will of an entity they call God.

Both Krakauer’s book and the miniseries take their title from the words of a past president of the LDS church who reportedly said in 1880, “God is greater than the United States, and when the Government conflicts with heaven, we will be ranged under the banner of heaven against the Government.”

Those words suggest a wide range of possibilities, at least some of which – when put in the wrong hands – represent a truth far stranger than any fiction.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.

Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for Spokane7.com.