Movie Analysis: Leap of Faith

Film Credits

Cercone, Janus. Leap of Faith. Widescreen Collection DVD. Directed by: Richard Pearce. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 1992.

Cast Overview

Steve Martin as Jonas Nightengale

Debra Winger as Jane Larson

Lolita Davidovitch as Marva

Liam Neeson as Sheriff Will Braverman

Lukas Haas as Boyd

Meat Loaf as Hoover

Spoiler Warning

Caution! Many aspects of the plot are divulged in this writing which could ruin the experience for first time viewers.

Plot Summary

The story revolves around Jack Newton, alias Jonas Nightengale, a former petty criminal, drug user, and con man turned itinerant preacher and faith healer. On the surface, Jonas appears to be a true man of faith but in reality he’s a slick religious huckster. Nevertheless, when his Miracles and Wonders convoy of trucks and buses is forced to pull into the fictional town of Rustwater, Kansas for repairs, he has an encounter with true faith.

Analysis

While most would say that the movie Leap of Faith is a story about the rehabilitation of a career con man, it also happens to be a very accurate portrayal of biblical salvation.

Right from the start, we immediately see that Jonas Nightengale is a man on top of his game. Jonas is confident that he can always get the upper hand in any situation. For example, at the beginning of the movie when Hoover is pulled over for speeding in the bus Jonas is also riding in, Jonas decides to double as the driver since Hoover was previously convicted of drunk driving. Before getting out of the bus, Jonas wires himself up so that his conversation with the officer could be heard by everyone in his entourage—he never lets a good performance go to waste. Most of the conversation between Jonas and the officer takes place in the back of the patrol car since Jonas couldn’t produce his license and registration, the officer decided to arrest him. While in the patrol car, Jonas notices a violin case by the front passenger seat. In the end, Jonas not only talks his way out of the ticket, but he gets the officer to give him a donation for the ministry! After getting back on the bus, Jane asks him how he knew the officer played the violin and Jonas answers, “Red mark on the jaw from the chin rest…you know me Janie, I know people.”

While Jonas Nightengale had intended to take his traveling salvation show to Topeka, Kansas, God had other plans. Almost immediately after the incident with the police officer, one of the trucks in Nightengale’s Wonders and Miracles convoy develops a mechanical problem which forces them to take the next exit which just happens to be Rustwater, Kansas. Rustwater is a town going through tough times with the high unemployment rate and extended drought. Rustwater is not the type of town that can “afford” a huckster like Jonas Nightengale, but it sure is a town where the people could use “a little hope in their lives” and maybe just a few miracles…

Was it just coincidence that one of the trucks in Jonas’ convoy breaks down just in time for the driver to take the very next exit into Rustwater? God caused just the right part to fail at just the right time so that Jonas would be diverted to Rustwater instead Topeka as he had planned. God has a way of arranging circumstances to accomplish his purposes.

Without a doubt, Jonas Nightengale is a people person who knows how to work a crowd, but what I didn’t mention up to this point is that Jonas is also something of a womanizer. After pulling in to Rustwater, Jonas, Jane, and some members of Nightengale’s all black Angels of Mercy gospel choir stop by a local eatery for lunch. Before Jonas even sits down, he immediately tries to hit on Marva, one of the waitresses. She does an excellent job of deflecting all of Jonas’ advances which only seems to encourage him. Unknown to Jonas at the time is that Marva has a brother, Boyd, who was crippled in a car accident with a drunk truck driver.

Later that evening on their first night in town, Jane stops by Jonas’ room at the Golden Spread Motel and starts picking through Jonas’ personal belongings and finds the ruby ring that she has always wanted Jonas to give her but he refuses saying, “You’ll get it when I die…”

Every good story needs to have an antagonist to add some drama and in Leap of Faith the antagonist is provided in the character of Sheriff Will Braverman. Strangely enough, Will Braverman also happens to be Jane’s love interest in the story.

Jonas may be successful in deceiving most of the locals but not Sheriff Braverman. The Sheriff has Jonas pegged as a con man and he will do anything to expose him. Later when Sheriff Braverman confronts Jonas and accuses him of running a con, the only defense Jonas gives for his actions is that he “gives his people a good show…plenty of music…worthwhile sentiments.” While it’s true that Jonas is a dyed-in-the-wool con artist and religious huckster, he doesn’t harbor any phony preconceived notions about being a real man of faith. It’s almost hard not to like him.

After Jane cuts through the Sheriff’s red tape and acquires the necessary permits, the crew begins to set up the meeting tents. Even though Jonas is a fake healer, the Nightengale revival meetings are a wonder to behold—a well-oiled machine to be sure. The ushers do a good job of setting up the shills in the audience so Jonas can perform his healing miracles without a hitch while Jane operates the computer console and communications system in the background. Before each service, the ushers gather personal information from the crowd and relay them to Jane, who then communicates the information including the row/seat number where each person is sitting in the audience directly to Jonas in real-time during the service. This elaborate scheme gives the impression that God is giving Jonas special revelation about each person.

Jonas may be a huckster and a con man, but during his services (or shows if you prefer) he quotes a lot of Scripture verses and he quotes them accurately, for example, Ephesians chapter 6, verses 10 through 11. He also refrains from making heretical statements or phony claims about himself. Even though Jonas didn’t believe the verses he was giving out to his audience, God’s Word has power and God won’t let it be used in vain.

Up to this point, Jonas and Boyd haven’t met. Their first meeting takes place at the Quick Lunch diner where Marva is waitressing. Jonas asks Boyd for a game of chess and then Boyd asks him if he believes in miracles. Jonas answers with, “Never underestimate the power of belief boy.” Marva doesn’t want to hear any of Jonas’ viewpoints so she leaves the diner. Boyd then says to Jonas, “My sister thinks you’re a fake” and Jonas replies with, “Well maybe I am and maybe I’m not. If I get the job done, what difference does it make?” Boyd seems to be disappointed with Jonas’ answers but he doesn’t get discouraged.

The second meeting between Jonas and Boyd takes place the following morning while Jonas is out for his daily run. Boyd is lifting weights behind a baseball diamond fence. Jonas interrupts his run to chat with Boyd and after some initial banter, the conversation returns again to the subject of faith. Jonas asks Boyd about his medical diagnosis and Boyd responds with, “I’ll walk again if it’s God’s will,” and Jonas responds with the sarcastic remark, “Listen kid, God doesn’t have a trucker’s license,” implying that Boyd’s injury was caused by a drunk truck driver and not by God. Jonas then asks another question, “What do you think, you were chosen to suffer?” Boyd refuses to accept what Jonas says so he finally responds with, “I believe things happen for a reason.” The next time Boyd and Jonas meet, it will be life-changing for both of them.

Later that evening, Sheriff Braverman attends Jonas’ revival meeting and interrupts the proceedings by declaring, “I want to testify.” Jonas has no choice but to let him speak, so Sheriff Braverman proceeds to expose Jonas’ somewhat sordid background. Jonas knows he’s been made. However, even after being exposed as someone pretending to be someone he’s not, he handily recovers from the attack by admitting that everything the Sheriff said was true. He doesn’t try to defend himself. He turns the situation around in his own favor by reasoning that since he is the “king of sin,” he can understand and therefore empathize with the weaknesses and shortcomings all the lesser sinners in the audience are struggling with. After all, “if you want to give up womanizing, who you gonna talk to, some pale skinned virgin priest?” The audience responds with a resounding “No!”

Nevertheless, Jonas still has plans for one final elaborate hoax and that is to sneak in the meeting tent late at night and rig the figurine of Jesus on the cross so that it appears to be weeping. The next morning the news gets out about the weeping figurine which causes quite a stir at the meeting tent. Jonas pretends to be unaware of what’s going on and it isn’t until after he’s had a chance to check out the figurine in front of all the spectators, including the Sheriff, that he declares, “Praise the Lord it’s a miracle!”

The news about the “alleged” miracle spreads like wild fire throughout the area resulting in thousands of visitors flocking to Rustwater, Kansas to witness this supernatural occurrence. Since many, if not most, of the faithful drawn to the attraction are more affluent than the locals, the town experiences a sudden and much needed infusion of cash…and maybe a little hope. While Jonas intended to use the fake miracle to take money from people, God used it to help provide money for the people who were going through hard times.

In the meantime, while Will Braverman was attempting to expose Jonas as a fake, he was also developing a serious relationship with Jane. Will so much as proposed while he was spending time with Jane one afternoon after knowing her for only three days.

Since so many new visitors were in town that day, Jonas planned to stage a major healing event at his evening’s service. Jonas and Jane had planned for every contingency; if a real sick person wasn’t healed, they would invoke their malpractice insurance, “only if your faith is strong enough.” What they didn’t plan on was a genuinely sick person showing up with a genuine faith.

During the service while Jonas is pretending to heal people with all kinds of ailments, Boyd shows up and calls out, “Hey Rev’…what about me?” Jonas immediately tries to shut down the service by exiting the stage, but while speaking with Jane in the back, the crowd starts chanting, “One more! One more! One more…” Jonas has no choice but to go back out and face Boyd. After Jonas helps Boyd up on the stage, he looks Boyd in the eyes with disdain. Even so, Boyd walks over to the weeping Jesus crucifix and lays his hands on Jesus’ feet in a symbolic gesture of faith. After a moment, Boyd loses his balance and falls back dropping one of his crutches in the process. Immediately an Angel of Mercy choir member reaches out and prevents him from falling. Boyd steadies himself and then as he starts walking away, he finally lets go of his other crutch. Now, as Jonas witnesses Boyd’s miraculous healing, instead of looking at Boyd with scorn, as he did moments before, Jonas’ demeanor is changed as he accedes to the fact that Boyd’s beliefs were true and that his beliefs, were false.

I submit that God ordained Boyd’s physical condition so that He could demonstrate His power through Boyd by healing him right in front of Jonas, Marva, Jane, Will Braverman, and all the others in attendance that evening (John 9:1-3).

Instead of reveling in the accolades bestowed on him by the crowd of onlookers, Jonas leaves cursing in a fit of anger. When Jane follows him to their bus, he complains that he’s been hustled by the “waitress and Tiny Tim.” Jane refuses to accept Jonas’ explanation and after he agrees to continue using Boyd in his fake healing services she decides to leave him. Even though Jonas realizes now that his fake healing ministry is over, he still is unable to completely let it go, his pride and self-reliance won’t let him.

Jonas then makes his way back into the tent and approaches the cross where he begins to question God but this time he comes using his real name, Jack Newton. Jonas is interrupted by Boyd who stops by to thank Jonas for healing him. Jonas refuses to take credit for his healing but Boyd presses the issue so Jonas admits that he is a fake and that Boyd is “the genuine article.” Still, Boyd fells a certain amount of gratitude towards Jonas so he asks if he could join his ministry. Jonas agrees, even though he knows that that will never happen. God used Boyd’s faith to convict Jonas of his transgressions and to bring him to faith, the faith that leads to belief and repentance.

After Jonas’ fourth meeting with Boyd in the tent, Jonas goes out and surveys the mass of people surrounding his revival tent. Some are huddled in the open around campfires; some reading the Bible; and some providing food for those that are hungry. Maybe Jonas sees them as people of faith and maybe he doesn’t, but he certainly doesn’t see them as just suckers anymore.

Jonas quickly goes back to his motel room where he lays out his glitter jacket on the bed, the one that he used during his fake healing shows, along with an envelope. He then hitches a ride with a trucker who’s heading for Pensacola, Florida. Almost as soon as Jonas gets in the truck, it starts to rain…

In an act of true repentance, Jonas leaves all the remnants of his former life behind. And then, in an act of pure reliance on God, he hitches a ride with a passing trucker not knowing where he was going.

Meanwhile, Jane decides to stay with Will and later that evening Will drives Jane back to Jonas’ hotel room where they find the jacket on the bed with the envelope on top. Jane opens the envelope only to find ring that she has always wanted. Just a few days earlier, Jonas said he wouldn’t give up the ring until he died. Well, in a sense he did die; he died to his old way of life…

Jonas Nightengale’s salvation story closely parallels that of the biblical character Saul. As recorded in Acts chapter 9, Saul had absolutely no desire or will to believe in Jesus—quite the opposite! Saul was converted on the road to Damascus while he had every intention to arrest and persecute those who believed in Jesus. As the Scripture says in Romans 3:10-11 (NASB), “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD…” Likewise, neither was Jonas seeking salvation; he was on the road to Topeka so that he could take advantage of more people with his fake healing services. It wasn’t Saul’s nor Jonas’ will to be saved, but it was God’s will. While Saul received the gift of spiritual regeneration in a flash of bright light on the road to Damascus, Jonas’ received spiritual regeneration in the presence of a genuine miracle of God.

As Jonas and the trucker are making their way out of town, Jonas yells out, “Come on baby! Come on baby, rain… rain…Thank ya Jesus!”

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Copyright 2014 Gerard Sczepura

3 thoughts on “Movie Analysis: Leap of Faith”

  1. One of the most appealing real life Christian movie I have watched. It’s about God reaching us in our ridiculous wretchedness that we are not even aware of, and how He creates a miracle of turning even a Saul to a Paul. He is the God that creates the river in the desert.

  2. The movie is brilliant, Martin is magnificent.
    Although religious viewers see this as a biblical story of salvation which it is in some sense, for me this is a great example of how religion can be used to manipulate the masses, also a great show how organized religions are actually immoral contrary to what they preach all the time.
    This is the first truth showed in this movie, the second truth is about the job getting done so not all is black and white here.
    For some people it is more important to hear what they want to best just to feel better, for others there is nothing more important that the truth and reality. There is no right or strong and this should be respected, however I always choose reality so for me this movie is right there on the edge criticizing religion and giving people some hope. Contradictory and brilliant.

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