The Ledge: The movie atheists have been waiting for?

Oh, wow. A major Hollywood movie with an A-list cast, recognition from Sundance… and an explicitly atheist message? Could The Ledge be the “Hello, world, here we are!” movie that atheists have been waiting for?

The filmmakers certainly hope so:

Social progress is defined by wakeup moments, when a book or film draws such attention to a cause that it can no longer be crushed or ignored. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner changed the way people thought about interracial marriage. Brokeback Mountain woke a mainstream audience to the cruel consequences of homophobia. The Ledge, the first film to feature an openly atheist hero in a Hollywood production, hopes to achieve similar advances for atheists.

In communities across America where churches are socially and politically dominant, many atheists and agnostics stay in the closet to avoid hatred and isolation. Americans dislike atheists even more than gays and lesbians. According to a Gallup poll, 55% of Americans would vote for a President who was gay or lesbian, while only 45% would vote for an atheist. The Ledge, with A-list stars including Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Tony, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominee), Liv Tyler (The Lord of the Rings), and Terrence Howard (Crash, Academy Award nominee), provides an antidote: an imperfect but heroic atheist who is not afraid to say what he believes — even if it leads to his death.

“As we learn more about the universe and ourselves, religion will inevitably give way to atheism,” says Matthew Chapman, writer and director of The Ledge. Census figures back him up. Non-belief is the fastest growing “religion” in America. People — particularly the young — are embracing atheism in spite of the risk of being ostracized by religious families, friends, and neighbors. Best-selling books like “The God Delusion” and “God Is Not Great” show that public interest in atheism is high.

Chapman has a personal connection to the atheist cause. He is the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, who discovered evolution and set science on a collision course with religion in the most heated way since Galileo. “Like many people, I am fed up with fundamentalism attacking science, dominating politics, and persecuting gays. To believe in a God who tosses almost all his creations into a lake of fire for eternity is to approve of a kind of cruelty that is unimaginable to me. It’s time to grow up, reject Bronze Age superstition, and replace it with simple compassion and reason.”

Color me very intrigued. Chapman has solid scriptwriting credentials and seems to know what makes a good thriller tick:

I’ve written a number of thrillers and I love the form. It is primitive in a way but can be elegant and fun. I also believe that thrillers and comedies are underused as vehicles for carrying serious themes. If people are in suspense or doubled up laughing, they’ll ingest all kinds of stuff without feeling they’re being lectured to.

Then again, this particular clip certainly feels like a lecture — more like a declaration of standard atheist-vs-Christian talking points than an organic drama with fully fleshed-out characters:

Chapman, however, explains:

The script was deliberately “talky”. I knew that the first third of the film would seem slow to some people, but that this was the necessary price for getting to know the characters well enough to care about them in the remaining two thirds. There was pressure at times to remove or change dialogue, but as I’d written the thing for myself, never guessing I’d be lucky enough to find producers with the courage to make it, I resisted. I’ve never understood why it’s considered profoundly interesting to watch people talking a lot on stage (when you can’t even see their faces clearly), but sort of “not done” to do the same on film when you have the beauty of the close up. I was very careful in casting the movie to make sure I had actors who could handle long dialogue scenes, but I never imagined I’d get such incredible performances as I did.

Chapman clearly has a stick-to-his-guns passion for the film — which can lead either to something truly great and uncompromising, or to a too-close attachment to the project that makes one blind to its faults. I certainly hope it’s the former.

The Ledge is available now through video-on-demand and will open in New York and LA on July 8 (opening nationwide later if the initial run is successful). There’s a contest offering a chance to attend the NY premiere, as well as cash prizes. Have a go, and spread the word!

(via Richard Dawkins)

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