Although it sporadically errs on the side of sentimentality and simplification, “The Case for Christ” sustains interest, and even generates mild suspense, while offering a faith-based spin on the template of an investigative-journalism drama. Director Jon Gunn and screenwriter Brian Bird have shrewdly reconstituted Lee Strobel’s best-selling book about his road-to-Damascus transition from outspoken atheist to devout Christian as a kind of theological detective story. Of course, there’s never any real doubt as to how the story will be resolved. (After all, the title is “The Case for Christ,” not “The Case Against Christianity.”) But the movie likely will impress even dedicated nonbelievers with its willingness to place as much emphasis on empirical evidence as on blind faith.
The year is 1980, a fact repeatedly underscored by conspicuous period details as Chicago Tribune reporter Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel) uses pagers and typewriters instead of smartphone and computers, drinks massive quantities of Schlitz Beer, and keeps his shaggy mane in place with enough hairspray to deplete several acres of the ozone layer.
While Lee and his wife Leslie (Erika Christensen) are in a restaurant one fateful evening with their young daughter Alison (Haley Rosenwasser), the little girl nearly chokes to death on a piece of candy until Alfie (L. Scott Caldwell), a nurse fortuitously dining at a nearby table, steps in to save the child. When Alfie declares God must have guided her to the restaurant to do His will, Lee responds gratefully but skeptically. Alison, however, isn’t so quick to dismiss the possibility of divine intervention. She accepts Alfie’s invitation to join her in church, one thing leads to another, and soon Lee finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being an atheist married to a born-again Christian.
Determined to bring his wife back to her senses, Lee falls back on his training as an investigative reporter to debunk Christianity by disproving its central tenet, the resurrection of Christ. Trouble is, the more he consults with archaeologists, historians, theologians, and medical experts, the more he hears what he really doesn’t want to hear. Undeterred, he obsessively presses on, thereby escalating tensions between himself and his Bible-studying wife. But wait, there’s more: He’s so distracted from his professional duties that, while covering the case of a police informer (Renell Gibbs) accused of shooting a cop, he rashly rushes to judgment — a sin for which he must seek redemption.
Vogel and Christensen are more than adequate in the lead roles, individually and in tandem, and it’s not entirely their fault that, at times, they sound as though they’re reading bullet points instead of delivering dialogue. But Vogel repeatedly is hard-pressed to hold his own opposite the scene-stealing supporting players in colorful cameo roles. As a renowned pathologist who has proven to his own satisfaction that, no, Jesus didn’t survive the crucifixion, Tom Nowicki strikes the perfect balance of common sense and bemused condescension. Robert Forster doesn’t have much to do during his fleeting appearance as Lee’s estranged father, but he vividly expresses an affecting mix of regret, sorrow and frustration during a failed attempt at reconciliation.
And Faye Dunaway makes the absolute most of her juicy single scene as a psychologist who gets to deliver the movie’s sharpest line when Lee asks her whether 500 or so eyewitness could have been sharing the same delusion when they claimed to have seen Jesus after He rose from the dead. “That,” she replies, “would have been an even bigger miracle than the Resurrection.” Not surprisingly, Lee can’t come up with a comeback to that.