Making the Grades
In the late 90s, Travis Robert Tuttle and Andrew Lee Propst (played by Corbin Allred and Maclain Nelson) were just two of the several thousand missionaries serving voluntarily around the world for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church). Usually these young men, stationed in Russia on a two-year assignment, spent their time looking for opportunities to share their beliefs, provide service in the community and teach free English classes. Despite a friendly approach, their efforts to offer a Christian message to the wary citizens of the previously communist country received a cool reception.
When a complete stranger, who identifies himself as Nikolai (Nikita Bogolyubov), invites them to his home, the missionaries are understandably surprised. But any plans for having a religious discussion are dashed the moment the pair cross the threshold of his apartment and the door closes behind them. Ambushed, beaten and threatened with a gun, Tuttle and Propst’s are handcuffed, gagged and blindfolded with adhesive tape, then transport to an undisclosed location. Once there, Nikolai and his older accomplice Sergei (Alex Veadov) take pictures of the twenty-year-old Elders and prepare a note demanding money for their safe return.
The situation is terrifying for the young missionaries, who are sure their assailants intend to kill them, and that fear extends to their families back home in the United States. Knowing the American Government and the Mormon Church have similar policies about refusing to pay ransoms in order to discourage any future acts of treachery, there is little reason to hope they will ever see their sons alive again. All any of them can do is pray.
Meanwhile, it is just a matter of time before the hostage takers also realize that there will be no reward for their crime. As the hours turn into days, Tuttle and Propst wonder how long Sergei’s patience will last, and what his desperate reaction will be when it finally runs out.
The tedium of passing this time is a challenge for both the captives and the scriptwriters. As the panic subsides, the missionaries try to alleviate the boredom by compiling a NBA dream team and sharing with each other their stories of conversion to the faith. They also quietly consider ways to break free of their abductors. While the plot may lag a little during the basketball and religious conversations, there is plenty of action during the dramatized scenarios of the Americans’ possible escape plans.
Based on a true story, The Saratov Approach does it’s best to keep the violence as sanitized as it can. The missionaries’ injuries are only bruises and scuffs, and the threats are uttered without any profanities. Nikolai, the softer of the two kidnappers, even offers the young men a beer. (He and Sergei are shown drinking and smoking in some scenes.) The greatest concerns for teens and older audiences will be the tense gun sequences and the chilling thought of anyone being subjected to such an ordeal.
Yet where the screenplay really shines is in its ability to capture the complexities of what at first appears to be a simple case of good versus evil. The longer the missionaries are held, the greater the moral dilemmas becomes for the prisoners, the perpetrators and even the parents. Watching these characters struggle to find (and have the courage to do) the “right” thing brings an unexpected depth to this movie. Those who view this film are as likely to be touched by this inspirational story as was the general public who watched these events unfold in the media during the spring of 1998.
Release Date: 9 October 2013 (Limited)
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Saratov Approach.
How does being kidnapped affect the missionaries and their beliefs? If you had to face such an ordeal, would you draw closer to your maker, or fear there was no God at all? Are the choices these young men make an example of their faith, or an acceptance of their fate?
Learn more about the real story here:
Read about the USA’s policy on paying ransom.
Explore Saratov, Russia.