When does a sense of adventure turn into madness? The Mission, a new documentary from Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, attempts to ask and answer this question in telling the tragic story of John Chau. In 2018, the young missionary was killed by arrows on North Sentinel Island, a place he traveled to illegally in an attempt to convert the inhabitants of the remote island to Christianity. Via a mixed medium aesthetic (animation, in-person interviews, and voiceover that recounts Chau’s personal diaries), Moss and McBaine try to understand what brought their subject to the conclusion that he needed to go to where he was not wanted and attempt to “save” these indigenous people.

Unfortunately, John Chau is the least interesting part of the film. Well-made though it is (Moss and McBaine do good work, see their incredible Boys State for further proof), The Mission is about too many things at once. There’s the young, Portland-born 26-year-old himself; there’s the adventures he took on the prepare for the fatal mission (there’s compelling documentation via his social media); there’s the evangelical community that took him in and nurtured his misguided ambitions; there’s his mournful father who regrets ever allowing him to get involved with the church and pursue the mission. There’s a lot and very little of it feels well-examined. This is despite considerable access and some fascinating revelations.

Frankly, the most compelling element of the film is that it’s produced by National Geographic Documentary Films. There’s an honest criticism of the somewhat-famous 1974 issue of National Geographic in which the Sentinelese are portrayed as savages with spears. It’s revealed there were hundreds of photographs portraying a more nuanced, complicated life on the islands. Unsurprisingly, sensationalism won out, and the issue only aided in confirming prejudicial notions of “primitive” societies that had remained “unconquered” and “un-saved.” That a documentary produced by National Geographic would confront this is earnest but sadly under-explored. Such is the majority of the picture.

Talking heads speak on the messiah complex and how it might apply to Chau. There are some garish animated renderings of his brief time on the island before his death. Adam Goodheart––an author who traveled to North Sentinel Island himself twenty years prior––stands out in his observations. As does Dan Everett, a professor and former missionary, whose thoughts on the whole tragedy echo my own. In short: what a waste and what a shame. Belief systems can do so much good but the amount of bad is perhaps incalculable. Equal time is given to the evangelical friends that populated Chau’s life, though a third act sermon serves as much of an indictment as the filmmakers are willing to make. Moss and McBaine do well to examine their subject from every angle. And yet, it’s not nearly enough.

The Mission opens in theaters on Friday, October 13.

Grade: C

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