No, I’m not a “wannabe” Mormon; I’m a card-carrying one. But I’m a wannabe documentary maker, so I came to the Helen Whitney’s work from many angles.

First off, would I recognize myself as a member of the Church she presents?

Answer: You betcha.

Second: Is it as good as her award-winning Faith and Doubt on 9/11?

Answer: No, but this is an incredibly ambitious effort (maybe too ambitious?), and Faith and Doubt came with its own focus. It did not require “acts,” and the audience got to know only five or six people and the totality of their experiences losing or maintaining faith on the day they lost loved ones. The Mormons , on the other hand, is an epic, covering two hundred years of history and multiple, rather convoluted issues. The decision to use “acts” to distinguish the different episodes of early Mormonism seems wise, though the first two hours follow a pretty direct chronology.

These were her “Acts”

Act I: Revelation

This chapter tells of Joseph Smith’s first vision, and makes mention of the several versions he wrote describing it, acknowledging that the official version was not written until years after its occurrence.

I found nothing in this episode which any Mormon should find troubling. The approach to Joseph Smith is from a Richard Bushman perspective rather than a CES one: Joseph as a complex man, a “rough stone rolling.”

In this and further segments, men dominated. Will Bagley and Ken Verdoia were established as the two main spokespersons, with some time devoted to Kathleen Flake, Judith Freeman, and another female historian. Michael Coe, renowned anthropologist, had only one soundbite. Interesting.

What most impressed me was the obvious access Ms. Whitney had to Church archives. I recognized many of the photos; I have used several myself in presentations—and I’ve always gone through the Correlation Department to get copyright permission. From the number of photos Whitney had, I’m guessing she was given carte blanch. I think I saw some out-takes from Legacy; certainly she didn’t film all of the re-enactments. It looked to me like the Motion Picture Studio (via the Correlation Department) donated freely to her B-roll. And that was good. She had so many “talking heads” (especially in the first part) that she really needed those re-enactments and photos.

Act II: The Saints

Good American history about the Second Great Awakening and the reasons that Mormonism took hold and endured. The Book of Mormon was something tangible which converts could hold and touch. Their religion had this palpable symbol and text, which was more than just an ethereal philosophy.

Act III: Persecutions

By this time, I was happy to have a more personal voice in Terryl Givens, who talked about his own ancestors at Haun’s Mill. Until now, most of what we got was history. Even the outsider’s voice was familiar in telling the stories we know so well. I noticed some clear editorial choices here, which leaned in favor of the Church’s oft-taught view of its history. No mention of the Sidney Rigdon’s famous sermon which introduced the threatening word “extermination” before Boggs ever used it, nor of skirmishes between Mormons and non-Mormons prior to Haun’s Mill. Joseph Smith’s dying words, “Oh Lord my God” were characterized as a call to God, with no mention of their Masonic meaning as signal of distress. (I assume Masonic ritual will be introduced tomorrow night.) And William Law was described as merely a “close associate” of Joseph Smith’s, not as a former member of the First Presidency, whose wife Brother Joseph had proposed to. These editorial choices—and I can’t imagine they weren’t discussed at length—indicate some friendliness towards the Mormon version of our history. I would guess that non-Mormon historians might have felt that Whitney was too friendly with those who had given her such unprecedented access to footage and photos.

Act IV: Exodus

Good characterization of the Mexican Territory, which comprised what is now Utah, and of the rationale for settling IN (rather than settling for) the desert of Utah: isolation—the movement “further from the world and deeper into faith.” This segment includes a fascinating discussion of dance, which was also an interesting editorial choice. Again, I would guess there was some debate over whether or not to include the dance portion, but I’m glad somebody said yes. If only for Terryl Givens’s statement that “dance expresses the collapse of the divine distance…it is righteous reveling,” the episode earns its place. (It also made me wonder why we don’t have more righteous reveling nowadays, and maybe some energetic music you could actually tap your feet to.)

I appreciated the very human portrayal of Brigham Young as a man full of uncertainty, who became a remarkable leader. “Unlike Joseph Smith,” said an interviewee, as though speaking for Young, “God doesn’t speak to me.” Then a dream comes wherein Young is told to listen to the “still small voice” and he will be empowered to do anything. Of course, this act is setting up for the next one, which will have a more succinct focus…

Act V: Mountain Meadows

A lot of time is devoted to this episode, but there are some very poignant interviews, particularly with descendants of surviving children of the murdered immigrants. Judith Freeman (author of a novel about the MMM) suggests that Mormons had the idea of perfect obedience being the ultimate justification. “If you can get people to believe they’re doing God’s will, you can get them to do anything,” she says. And the most disturbing question of all is posed: How did these religious people become mass murderers?

As we could have predicted, Brigham Young is indicted as being at the very least complicit in the cover up, and maybe complicit in more than that, but both perspectives (maybe he was; maybe he wasn’t) are presented. Mostly, the tragedy of the event is recognized, with Dallin Oaks summing up the massacre in these words: “What a terrible thing to contemplate the extreme atrocity perpetrated by members of my faith.”

Act VI Polygamy

“Every time it comes out,” says an interviewee, “the Church flinches.” Several clips show President Hinckley clarifying that polygamy is NOT a current practice of the LDS Church. But then again, there’s a disconnect. This IS our history, and fundamentalists in many ways show us who we were. I had expected I’d be terribly uncomfortable with the inclusion of fundamentalists (they aren’t US, after all; they’re THEM—aren’t they?), but I wasn’t at all uncomfortable. The movement from past polygamy to current polygamy—even with President Hinckley’s repeated statement of clarification—was quite seamless.

In conclusion:

My reaction to the production was a slight shrug of the shoulders. I’m impressed at the access, I like Helen Whitney, I thought she took on a little more than she should have in covering so much time and so many people, but this was not an unsettling piece. I think Helen fulfilled her promise to find balance. For me, the most poignant moments were the most personal ones—somebody recounting their own experience, or the experience of their ancestor. I would have liked a more intimate feel; maybe more readings from pioneer journals (there was only one reading). The history felt pretty solid, and controversies were shielded with two perspectives. Still, I wondered who the audience for this piece was other than Mormons and people interested in Mormonism or religion in general. Would it sustain the interest of someone who didn’t care whether or not the Mormons were treated fairly by a documentary maker?

Regardless, it took on a huge subject and did it justice.

Now, let’s see what tomorrow brings. From the looks of things, this was the easy day. Tomorrow will get hard.