(Photo: Katherine Bomboy)
“Billy: The Early Years” releases in more than 280 theaters across 15 states this weekend, just weeks ahead of the famed evangelist’s 90th birthday.
Starring 21-year-old actor Armie Hammer as the young Billy Graham, “Billy” attempts to capture the essence of Graham’s journey from a young man at the crossroads of faith and doubt to ultimately facing the moment of decision that gave way to one of history’s most influential evangelists.
“Finally, someone has made the kind of family-friendly film we've been asking for,” exclaimed Mary Graham, president of Women of Faith, in her endorsement for the movie.
GiGi Graham, oldest daughter of Billy and Ruth Graham, meanwhile said her two greatest concerns before seeing the film were: (1.) "Would the Gospel of Jesus Christ be presented clearly?" And (2.) "Would this film present daddy and mother in a positive way?"
“I was very pleased that yes, the Gospel is clearly presented and my daddy, my mother and the ministry are all presented in a most positive way,” she added.
Starting with Graham’s teenage years in Charlotte, N.C., the upcoming film paints a vivid portrait of Graham and his life before international prominence – from the legendary series of revival meetings in Charlotte that ultimately led to Graham’s conversion in 1934 to the early stages of his relationship with Ruth Bell, the woman who Graham would eventually marry.
Also captured in the film is Graham’s relationship with the evangelical star of the 1940s, Charles Templeton, a gifted young preacher who would eventually reject the Christian faith after a long struggle with doubt. In the film, Templeton comes to personify the rising tide of disbelief into which Graham launched his evangelistic crusades.
In the weeks leading up to the official theatrical opening, more than 50 advanced screenings were held throughout the Bible Belt, where most of the theaters showing the film this weekend are.
The rave reviews that the movie has drawn so far have already generated a great deal of buzz around the film.
One critic of "Billy," however, is widely-recognized evangelist Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s youngest son.
“The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) has not collaborated with nor does it endorse the movie, 'Billy: The Early Years,'” expressed BGEA CEO Franklin Graham in a written response over the summer.
“While the move covers many aspects of my father’s early years, it depicts events that never happened or are greatly embellished,” he added.
But not all in the Graham camp agree with Franklin.
In fact, Gigi Graham has been one of the film’s biggest supporters and was even hired as a consultant to help promote the film.
"Franklin called me and said he thought the movie was dorky,” she told Christianity Today. “But I think it's good and positive, and I think it honors the Lord and my mother and daddy.”
Gigi and filmmaker Bill McKay told CT that they felt Franklin was just nitpicking.
"People need to remember that the movie is fiction based on fact," said Gigi, who has seen the movie about 10 times.
"[I]t's a movie, not a documentary," added McKay. “We were just trying to humanize the experience in that scene. But every step of the way, we tried very hard to be faithful to Dr. Graham's story."
Graham is believed to have spoken face-to-face with more people in more places than anyone in history, having preached to over 210 million people in over 185 countries.
He has been a friend to every U.S. president since Harry Truman and has been listed by the Gallup organization as one of the “Ten Most Admired Men in the World” an unmatched 51 (44 consecutive) times.
Before making a personal commitment to Christ at the age of 16, however, Graham was simply a young man who, like many his age, wanted a career as a professional baseball player.
Even after making his decision for Christ, Graham struggled with doubt – a struggle captured in “Billy: The Early Years.”
And, as a movie critic from the Chicago Tribune noted, it is Graham’s battles with doubt that add credibility to his story.
“To watch Graham grapple with questions the Bible can't answer and come out even more devoted gives the audience a glimpse of his humanity,” the review stated. “After all, aren't these the questions many of us confront whether we have faith or not?”
Since retiring from public ministry due to his failing health, Graham has been largely confined to his home in Montreat, N.C. He has suffered from Parkinson's disease for about 15 years, has had fluid on the brain, pneumonia, broken hips, and recently revealed that he is suffering from prostate cancer.
Next month, Graham celebrates his 90th birthday – the second birthday he'll mark since the death of his wife, Ruth Bell Graham, who died four days after her 87th birthday in 2007.
Ruth Graham was buried at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., where Graham said he too would be later buried one day.