April 30, 2007 / 1:31 AM / 11 years ago

"The Mormons" a fascinating PBS documentary

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - For the first time, “Frontline” and “American Experience,” two giants of PBS programming, come together on a single production: the four-hour, two-part documentary “The Mormons.”

The collaboration — while comprehensive, well-researched, nicely balanced, thoroughly organized and fascinating to watch — is far from seamless.

For the most part, “American Experience” owns the first night, which recounts the history of a church that, in less than two centuries, has grown to about 12 million followers worldwide. The second night, more typical of the “Frontline” approach, confronts issues that have made and continue to make the Mormon church controversial to many. It examines unique church practices and efforts to position the religion in a mainstream light.

The division isn’t perfect. For example, the practice of polygamy is both part of the historical foundation of the church and, because of its cultural remnants, still an impediment to its positioning itself as a perfect reflection of American values.

Would the apostles who form the Mormon leadership in Salt Lake City approve of this Helen Whitney production, written by Whitney and Jane Barnes? Maybe not. “Mormons” is scrupulously fair in its inclusion of the official church version of events as well as interviews with followers and leaders who are passionate about their religion. But it also has its share of skeptics and naysayers who question the authenticity of everything from church pronouncements to the very origins of the Book of Mormon.

Was Joseph Smith, the church founder, a prophet to whom God revealed the true direction of Christianity? Or was he a con artist, one of many self-proclaimed seers of his day, who made it all up as he went along? “Mormons” doesn’t come down on one side or the other but offers ample arguments for both.

The docu, narrated by David Ogden Stiers, also suggests that the Mormon religion, simply by virtue of its recent origins, is subject to greater scrutiny than other faiths. The ancient religions were established at a time of imprecise science and murky record-keeping. While there might be contradictory scientific evidence, it isn’t strong enough to shake the faith of most adherents.

Smith, however, is a relatively contemporary figure. In addition to official church accounts, there is no shortage of articles, diaries and journals to confirm or dispute his words and deeds. While the real motives of Moses and Jesus, seen through the gauze of centuries, are assumed to be pure, no such filter exists to protect Smith from steely-eyed scrutiny.

If there is a weak point to this hugely informative and watchable series, it may be the amount of time allocated in the second night to the practice of Mormon missions and the church’s heavy-handed approach to critics. Regardless, this is a brilliant work on a engaging topic.

Narrator: David Ogden Stiers

Producer-director: Helen Whitney; Teleplay: Helen Whitney, Jane Barnes; Editor: Ted Winterburn; Frontline producers: Michael Sullivan, David Fanning; American Experience producers: Sharon Grimberg, Mark Samels.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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