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'Saratov Approach' captures suspense of real-life missionary abduction drama

"The Saratov Approach" recounts the true story of two missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were abducted in Russia in March 1998.

It is a successful film for many reasons, but none more impressive than its ability to keep you in suspense when you already know the outcome of the story.

Those familiar with the event will remember the basics: Elders Propst and Tuttle are serving in the Russian city of Saratov in the greater Samara Mission, balancing their time between street contacting, offering informal community service to locals and teaching interested parties. Propst has just reached his "hump day," having completed the halfway mark of his two years' commitment, and in a scene relatable to anyone who has served an LDS mission, he and Tuttle quietly set fire to one of his many white button-up shirts to mark the moment.

But the celebration does not last. While following up on a teaching contact the next day, Tuttle and Propst arrive at an apartment and are jumped and beaten by two captors. The prisoners are bound, Polaroids are taken and the two missionaries find themselves in the middle of a terrifying hostage situation with a $300,000 price tag.

From here, the day-to-day lives of two 20-year-olds become the subject of international attention. Federal authorities and political leaders get involved, working with church leaders and the missionaries' parents.

For a film about an international incident, "The Saratov Approach" wisely chooses to focus its time on the missionaries and their captors. Part of this could be due to a limited budget, but the important story is what is happening within that relationship. Propst and Tuttle, played in excellent fashion by Maclain Nelson and Corbin Allred, respectively, slowly make their way through a barrage of emotions, confronting fears of their captors and their own mortality, and slowly coming to understand the role their faith will play in their predicament.

The acting job by their captors is no less impressive. Seasoned moviegoers may snicker to see one of the kidnappers wearing an Adidas track suit, the modern de facto attire of Russian bad guys throughout Hollywood. But Nikita Bogolyubov and Alex Veadov are gripping and even sympathetic as Nikolai and Sergei, a pair of auto mechanics who kidnap the missionaries out of their own desperation.

"The Saratov Approach" is a film that could easily falter as it gets lumped into the category of Mormon cinema, and the well-tread subcategory of missionary movies that is so prominent within it. But director Garrett Batty's effort is admirable, not just because he's trying to emerge from an uneven and often maligned genre, but because he's successful.

The first half-hour of the film, heavy on hand-held camera work and an intense original soundtrack, feels almost like "God's Army"-meets-"Bourne Supremacy." But just when that dichotomy starts to feel tired, Batty settles in for a more intimate focus on the plight of the missionaries, and the good work really happens. The final result is suspenseful, faith-promoting and very entertaining.

"The Saratov Approach" is rated PG-13 for scenes of violence and frightening moments.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at