Press "Enter" to skip to content

Review: The Mission (2023)

The Mission (2023)

Directed by: Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss

Premise: A documentary about American missionary John Chau who died in 2018 while attempting to preach to the indigenous people of North Sentinel Island.

What Works: The Mission is quite reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man which was a portrait of the naturalist and bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell who was killed by the animals he was so enthralled by. Much like Treadwell, news of Chau’s death became a viral story that was cause for ridicule and like Herzog’s film, The Mission takes a considered approach to its subject. This documentary is partly a portrait of Chau that draws on testimony from his friends, Chau’s diaries, and an insightful letter written by Chau’s father. As portrayed in The Mission, Chau was a passionate Christian who was also enamored with adventure stories like Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and On the Far Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. Those interests dovetailed in his missionary work and Chau was determined to proselytize the indigenous people of North Sentinel Island who live in chosen isolation and have made it clear that they are not interested in contact from the outside. And that leads to the broader aspect of The Mission: its ethical investigation of missionary work and anthropology. Chau felt called by his faith to preach to these people but the story of Chau’s journey to North Sentinel Island illustrates how expressions of faith can also be vehicles for narcissism and colonialism. The Mission connects the stories that the western world has told about indigenous people with acts of imperialism that have deliberately or accidentally caused native communities great suffering. The filmmakers create a complicated and nuanced portrait of Chau, revealing who he was as a person but also as a product of larger historical and cultural forces. The commentators are quite perceptive and ask many of the right questions, acknowledging how Chau’s story acts out consistent patterns in western culture and our history of interactions with peoples of other regions.

What Doesn’t: The commentators of The Mission acknowledge that we don’t really know what happened between Chau and the Sentinelese. There is certainly good reason to believe he was killed given the previous violent interactions between the indigenous people and outsiders but we don’t know exactly what took place and Chau’s body was never recovered. However, the filmmakers imagine what happened and visualize that hypothesis through animation. The sequence works dramatically for the film but it also gives the impression that the truth of the matter is known when in fact it isn’t.

Disc extras: Available on Disney+.

Bottom Line: The Mission is a smart documentary that offers a nuanced take on the life of John Chau and the ethics of missionary work. Although it presumptively fills in a few blanks, The Mission asks many of the right questions. 

Episode: #980 (January 14, 2024)