Anyone who directs a movie about the converging efforts of Pope St. John Paul II and Ronald Reagan to take on the Soviet Union is someone I’m interested in talking to.
But Robert Orlando isn’t just anyone to me. He’s the first filmmaker I’ve ever interviewed that I knew before he was a filmmaker and before I was a film critic.
Robert and I met as students at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in the 1980s. He was a film major with a particular interest in cartooning and illustration; I was a media arts major focusing on cartooning and illustration with a particular interest in film.
We had something else in common: We were both Christians and both had leading roles in SVA’s Christian community at the time. (A friend and I dubbed SVA’s Christian fellowship “SerVAnt.” I designed a decent logo for the group; I still have one of the T-shirts.)
Calvinism had had a formative effect on both of us. I had been instilled with anti-Catholic ideas from my youth, and, while Robert had been raised Catholic, by the time I became interested in Catholicism, he was anti-Catholic enough to try to “rescue” me from Rome by giving me a copy of “the anti-Catholic bible,” Lorraine Boettner’s Roman Catholicism.
This had the opposite of the intended effect on me, and, before long, Robert’s own thinking on the subject shifted again and he reverted to his Catholic upbringing.
After losing track of each other for decades, Robert and I recently reconnected over dinner with his wife, Margo, and my wife, Suzanne. Afterward, I spoke with him by phone about his John Paul II and Reagan documentary, The Divine Plan, and the companion book co-written with Paul Kengor (debuting on Amazon and in bookstores on June 10).
This Thursday, April 25, at 7pm, Robert will be at the Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in New York to present and talk about his film.
The Divine Plan covers a story that unfolded in part at a time when you and I were art students together in New York in the 1980s. What were your impressions at the time, if you recall, of Pope John Paul II on the world stage?
I always had a good feeling, or an impression, of something good and grand going on, but I didn’t pursue it. Maybe I was just seeing the Vatican at that time as more of a political institution, the way Protestants view Catholicism. I wasn’t antagonistic or dismissive, but I just didn’t see the appeal of institutional religion. I did know that he was a good pope and a respected man on the world stage.
Did he play any role in your changing attitude toward the Church? In moving you back toward active Catholic membership?
No. If anything, his largest role in my thinking was, I think, as a theological representative in the Catholic faith of 20th-century philosophy and the theo-drama that played out in the film over the fight against communism.
If there was a moment when I started to think, “Wow, there’s something really special here,” it was learning that he had been a philosophy student and brought all that suffering to the table of the world’s stage, especially being born under Nazi Germany. I learned more about him later, I’d say in the last five years or so.
And what about Ronald Reagan? Did you always find him appealing in some way, or did you also have some kind of “Reagan conversion”?
No, no (laughing). If you were an evangelical in the ’80s, Reagan was kind of like your pope!
Did you always want to do film work from a faith perspective? Do you think of yourself as doing film work from a faith perspective?
I spoke with Fred Buechner years ago — very smart author, went to Princeton Theological Seminary. I worked on a video production in Manhattan with him. I remember him once telling me that there is no difference between when the apostle Paul is preaching [at the Areopagus] than when Beethoven is composing his Ninth Symphony.
I think I just see it that way: There’s not the faith world and the non-faith world. I think there is one world and faith that works its way through that world.
That gives me an inkling about where you might go on my next question, which is this: When we were art students, the faith-based film industry as we know it today did not exist. What are your thoughts about the rise of what we now call the faith-based film?
It’s been my experience from Day One that the Hollywood industry is just missing how many people out there care about their faith and how many people truly come from a traditional perspective. It’s a combination of Hollywood politics and its dismissiveness of faith. I hate to say it, but there’s almost a soft Marxism that still exists.
So it’s almost by commercial necessity that someone would have to represent the people who don’t mind faith being discussed honestly in their dramas and their filmmaking and their books.
I think the second thing is that evangelicals, who are the largest political and, I think, media voice, do get to determine that theology and how that theology is filtered. And it winds up being a very binary world: When you read something, it’s good, but when you sense something, it’s bad.
It’s that Platonic bias that the body or the senses are of less import than the mind. It’s kind of like the anti-sacramental view, and I think that is still pervasive in evangelical thinking — and I love evangelicals! (Laughing.)
Do you think that that anti-sacramental worldview has implications on the quality of the films that are produced in this industry?
I do, because on a very basic level, the divine act [for evangelicals] is to talk and read, rather than sit and eat. The central action [for Catholics in encountering] the Divine is to break bread and to drink with one another. In that setting, at a table, is the archetype of the Imago Dei.
If you come at it more like, “I am going to learn something from a passage, in my head, that then I will translate down into the lower places, the everyday profane places,” I think it does set you up to put less emphasis as a Christian on the senses. And if you don’t put emphasis on the senses, you won’t practice the art of developing them.
Your topic reminds me of Stalin’s famous jibe about the Pope: “How many divisions has he got?” What made John Paul II so effective in his dealings with communists?
Bishop Barron says it in the film. Better than knowing his friends, John Paul II knew his enemies really well. And he knew at the center of Marxism is a misunderstanding of an anthropological issue: the idea that human beings can be happy in the corporate or in the state alone without their individual freedom and their own dignity to fail or succeed.
He had a will made of steel. Once you put together that understanding and the will and then your faith, which says that the individual matters so much that God died for that individual, that’s a potent combination. So there was no stopping him.
It’s too strong a word, but I almost see him as a messianic figure to Poland. When I think of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, almost in mockery of Caesar, I think of John Paul II when he rode into Poland right in the face of the communists. It was a demonstration, a dramatic act that said, “No more — you guys are done here.”
Why was the alliance, or convergence, between John Paul II and Ronald Reagan so important?
What’s the old saying — Patton used to say it? “Talk softly and carry an armored tank division”? (Laughing.)
Reagan had U.S. might and the network of CIA intelligence departments on top of that. I’m not saying that he was threatening with violence. I’m just saying that the marriage of a moral bully pulpit, like a moral figure like John Paul II and the backing of U.S. power, will put the fear of God in anyone.
I think they shared two things: faith and anti-communism. I think with Reagan it was when he faced the unions in his Hollywood days and he saw how violent the mobs would get at the studios. I think that’s where he turned off to communism. He had been an FDR Democrat for generations and didn’t really plan on changing; it was his experience that flipped him.
Much of this story has been told before in different ways, for instance by John O’Sullivan, who is interviewed in your film. Other than introducing it to a younger audience that might not be familiar to it, what made you feel that this story needed to be told again? What, if anything, is new in your approach?
I think most documentaries, even when well done, tend to be biopics. I use a narrative style. I think of it like the Book of Acts versus the epistles. The Book of Acts is a story; everyone remembers it. People are going to be less inclined, generally speaking, to break down epistles and reconstruct the narrative from the didactic pieces of an epistle.
A lot of films are made about these characters, but I don’t think they told the story the way I did, where they actually galvanized together, witnessing the divine plan emerging in both their lives and then setting a real course with the powers that be to bring down Soviet communism. I’ve never seen it succinctly put together in a dramatic way like that. It’s usually more [of a] socio-historical approach, not dramatic.
This interpretation of events has been criticized by some historians who argue that other figures deserve more credit for defeating Soviet communism — like Lech Walesa, the Polish labor activist who co-founded Solidarity. Have John Paul II and Reagan possibly gotten too much credit?
I don’t know if you knew this, but Walesa is now controversial in Poland, and the BBC did an article that said that he was a spy, ultimately, of the communists. But you can’t take away the power of organizing and the unions early on, so you have to add him.
I think you could add Gorbachev, but let me deconstruct that a bit. I think Gorbachev backed into this because I don’t think he had a choice. His economy was crumbling. He had to deal when he didn’t want to. He never stopped being a communist; he never wanted Russia to become a nationalist state like it is today. So I think he was just out of choices.
He allowed freedom under persuasion. He allowed freedom of religion, and I think the whole thing blew up on him. Once the Church opened the doors again and people could express themselves, he had no control over the empire any more.
You would have to argue that Thatcher was a very strong figure, and she also predated Reagan in some ways, with her interaction with the Pope and kind of seeing this new possibility in the world.
The world has changed a lot since the 1980s. What’s the relevance of this story today?
If I had a big megaphone right now, I would be screaming out to the social-justice warriors and the identity politicians, and I would say to all of those cynical by the warring that’s going on between the president and the media: Here was a more optimistic time; here was a mission or a war worth fighting. It’s hard to disagree over the goals: human dignity, human freedom, freedom of faith.
I think that my film comes at a good time because it offers an optimism, a transcendence if you will, of a better time of when we can unite and get great things done for really good reasons, not just the U.S., but the world.
And I think these two figures — imperfect figures, human figures, but still — can be pointed to as being representative of our better angels, for sure.