‘The Mission’ Review: An Empathetic and Sobering Doc Reconstructs the Life of a Missionary Killed on a Remote Island


John Allen Chau’s diary is filled with haunting entries. “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold,” he wrote on the evening before his death in 2018, “where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” Chau, who was killed by the Sentinelese people after making multiple attempts to connect with the voluntarily isolated tribal nation, wanted to spread the Gospel. He journeyed to the Andaman Islands, an archipelago of restricted islets in the Indian Ocean, to preach the word of God. Chau was a devout Christian and an avid adventurer — a combination of beliefs and interests that would prove deadly. 

Related Stories

When news of the 26 year-old American national’s death broke five years ago, it spurred intense debate about the ethics of Chau’s expedition and the white supremacist foundation of Christian mission trips. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ The Mission is an empathetic and reconstructive portrait propelled by questions surrounding Chau’s voyage. How could a young adult, described in loving terms by friends and family, think this was a good idea? Why was Chau so determined to make contact with the Sentinelese, a nation fiercely protective of its privacy? Was it the mark of personal obsession or the seduction of evangelical fanaticism? Was Chau a hero engaging in the purest expression of faith, as some supporters have said? Or an example of delusion and naïveté? 

The Mission

The Bottom Line A compelling investigation.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Directors: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 43 minutes

In many ways, The Mission, a Lightbox and National Geographic project, complements McBaine and Moss’ critically acclaimed documentary Boys State. Both study manifestations of American masculinity. The swarm of high school boys that descend upon Austin to build a representative government are not only figuring out their civic beliefs; they are also building an understanding of the kinds of men who rise to power. 

There’s a similar thread in The Mission, which opens with GoPro footage of Chau walking across the beach while a voiceover actor reads excerpted diary entries before constructing a portrait of his early life. Most of the information in the doc is gleaned from Chau’s journals and a letter that his father, Patrick, wrote to the filmmakers, in lieu of sitting for an interview. He is a psychiatrist and often slips into clinical observations of his son where one might expect emotional ones. 

The elder Chau (whose note is read by an actor, too) tells of John’s early infatuation with adventure. At a young age, he told his father he wanted to be a “wild man.” Through diary entries, we learn that John’s interests were piqued when he happened upon his father’s old copy of Robinson Crusoe. The fictional explorer’s influence is especially apparent in John’s journals, which possess the same dramatic register as Daniel Defoe’s fictional travelog. “I plan on arriving on the shores of an island, in which an unknown number of people live, who have unknown religious beliefs and speak an unknown tongue,” Chau wrote in his journal. “Some have called this the most difficult and impossible place to reach on Earth.” 

Before Chau learned about the Sentinelese during a mission trip with the Joshua Project, he hungered for adventure. Investigating that appetite is the focus of The Mission’s first and less assertive half. There’s strength in the hand-drawn animation, which, modeled after storybooks Chau likely read as a kid, connects the film’s visual language to its protagonist’s imagination and child-like wonder. But the limited access to Chau’s family — parents and two siblings — and some of his closest friends leave us with too many questions about his personal life.

Patrick reflects on how his son was seduced by a colonial-era romanticism, one in which exploration was grounded in domination and conquest. He blames himself for not being a better model, citing vague financial troubles brought on by a suspended license. There’s a sense that John revered his father and looked to him as an example. I wondered about Patrick’s minor notes of self-blame, how much they could be attributed to the pressures of constructing a family that fulfills American ideals.

The Mission doesn’t make these connections, at least not explicitly, and the why remains, understandably, contested. Patrick wonders, early in the film, why his son, a well-prepared traveler, would willingly take such a risk, his questions bringing to mind those asked about Chris McCandless, whose increasingly nomadic life and death were the subject of Into the Wild. (A fictional adaptation of Chau’s story, helmed by Justin Lin, is reportedly in the works.) What drives a person to embark on perilous journeys? 

The doc answers this by contextualizing Chau’s efforts within the broader missionary movement. This is when the film is at its most confident. McBaine and Moss interview historian Adam Goodheart, who wrote the forthcoming book on North Sentinel Island and served as a consultant for the film; linguist Daniel Everett, who was a former missionary; T.N. Pandit, an Indian anthropologist and expert on the Sentinelese people; and Jimmy Shaw, a missionary and alum of Chau’s alma mater Oral Roberts University. These talking heads create an absorbing and prickly chorus of testimonies. Their experience with the Sentinelese, with mission work and with the allure of adventure give us a sense of Chau’s motivations.

Goodheart, Everett and Pandit, especially, provide critical knowledge and perspective on the ethics of Chau’s decision. Their respective experiences with indigenous cultures, including the Sentinelese, offer an entry point for discussing the violence and hubris of mission trips. Everett speaks candidly about his own struggles with faith. And Pandit, who made the first friendly contact with the Sentinelese, reinforces why these indigenous groups are so protective of their homes. 

The Sentinelese, like other voluntarily isolated nations, have had almost exclusively brutal experiences with outsiders. When The Mission probes Western attitudes toward these nations — including those of its own distributor, National Geographic — it treads exciting territory and becomes a good companion piece to Raoul Peck’s Exterminate All the Brutes, which links the foundational ethics of white supremacy to Christianity. It also broadens Chau’s story, recasting his fate as a consequence of a similarly pernicious history.


Leave a Reply