Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Cokeville Miracle Review

Earlier this year, I took the opportunity to attend the LDS Film Festival in Orem, Utah. There were a lot of movies and projects being shown there, but there was two main films that I wanted to catch. The first was Freetown and the second was T.C. Christensen's The Cokeville Miracle. I was able to watch and review Freetown, and even talk with the director afterwards. But when I went up to purchase my ticket for The Cokeville Miracle, I learned that it was a lot more popular than I had thought and thus was turned away because it was sold out. Sad day. So I had to wait over two months until it finally came to regular theaters, which happened this past weekend. If you don't recognize the name T.C. Christensen right off the bat, just think of almost every other major LDS film out there and there's a good chance he was either the director or cinematographer. Like seriously. He has a huge stamp in the LDS film industry. Most recently he was the director, cinematographer, and producer of 17 Miracles and Ephraim's Rescue, both of which I loved. In fact, I have been a huge fan of most of his projects. Out of everything he's done, The Cokeville Miracle is his boldest venture yet as well as the one that's a pretty mixed bag for me.

Before I go any further, I should quickly mention that I don't really think this is a spoilable movie. I mean, the title of the movie and the tagline kinda tell you what's going to happen in the end. Because of this, I don't really feel bad discussing that ending because there are things that I want to bring up. However, if you look at the title of the movie, read the description and/or watch the trailer and you have no idea what's going to happen and don't want me telling you, I suppose this is a spoiler warning. Feel free to close this review now. Otherwise let's continue. The Cokeville Miracle tells the true story of a rather miraculous event that happened in Cokeville, Wyoming on May 16, 1986. David Young and his wife Doris walked into the elementary school in the town and took hostage 136 children and 18 adults, threatening to blow up every one of them with a huge bomb that they had with them if they didn't follow exactly what they said. That, of course, is not the miracle. The miracle is that the only deaths that day were the two perpetrators. This was a very religious town and everyone was praying very hard for the safety of the children and afterwards many of the first-hand accounts from the children stated that there were a host of angels that protected them throughout.

Cinematically speaking, this is a very-well made movie and I'll get into that here in a bit. However, throughout the whole movie there is a HUGE elephant in the room that the movie barely even acknowledges. Even when they do, I don't feel that they do a good enough job. That issue is that on December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut and shot and killed 20 young kids and six adults before shooting himself and after shooting his own mother. That horrific event is still very fresh on people's minds and is only one of many similar events like it where psychopaths succeeded in killing innocent victims. This is a very sensitive subject for many people and if you're going to make a movie where people survived an event like that because they prayed and God saved them, then you are walking on glass and you need to proceed with a lot of caution. Why does God save some people, but let others die? I know people who will deny the existence of a God because of how unfair this seems. I know other people who still believe in God, but will be emotionally distraught at this issue and for good reasons.

No I didn't see this movie at the LDS Film Festival, but I did read up on this controversy when the film was debuted and thus I spent a lot of time thinking about this issue before I saw this movie this past weekend. There are ways that you can explain this. I thought about sharing my thoughts on the issue, but ultimately I decided to keep this more as a review instead of a spiritual discussion on death, which I do have a lot of personal experience with being that many people close to me have passed away. The answer the movie gives at the end is that some people aren't as lucky as the people at Cokeville Elementary School and we don't really know why. Not even Christ healed every leper or blind man. But despite this, we should be grateful when a miracle does happen. This is a fair point, but it's not good enough in my opinion, especially since it was given as more of an afterthought in the postscript comments right before the end credits. If you are going to tackle a subject like this in a movie, then you need to do a better job than they do at addressing this issue. If you don't feel you can, then you should just leave it alone. Unfortunately I believe that this movie will end up doing more bad than good. I tried to imagine how the parents of the children killed in the Sandy Hook tragedy would feel after they watched this movie and I don't think it would be a very positive reaction.

The other issue I had with this movie was the tone of it. Most, if not all, of T.C. Christensen's films are LDS-themed films with very positive spiritual messages that you could throw in on a Sunday night and be inspired. This movie does have all that in it, but it's all in the second half of the movie. The first half is actually a really intense thriller. It felt like I was watching an episode of Criminal Minds. Yes, I do love Criminal Minds and I also love a really good thriller. But can you imagine sitting down with your parents on a Sunday night, wanting to watch a spiritually powerful movie like The Joseph Smith Movie or The Testaments (two movies that T.C. Christensen also worked on), and instead turning on an episode of Criminal Minds with a spiritual twist towards the end? That might not go over so well, but yet that's what this is. It is PG-13 for good reason, which I think is a first for T.C. Christensen. I mean, if you are wanting to watch a really intense spiritual thriller, then be my guest. Just know what you are getting into beforehand.

Like I said earlier, cinematically speaking, this is a very-well made movie. For a smaller-budgeted LDS film, this feels very professional. Not only did T.C. Christensen direct this movie, but he was also the cinematographer and he did a dang job with that. All the lighting, camera angles, and visuals are very stunning. This is a beautiful movie. There are also some special effects that are surprisingly good, an example being David Young tests his bomb on an empty school bus. It was a legit explosion that you don't usually done that well in a smaller-budgeted movie. The acting is also very good. Jason Wade from 17 Miracles plays the lead role in this as the father and police officer who is struggling with his faith through this whole thing and he is great. Our husband/wife psychopath duo of perpetrators are also very good. I hadn't even heard of Nathan Stevens and Kymberly Mellen who played these two, but they are good. The music is also very good, especially in scenes where there is no music. It was very tactically placed and taken away and was thus extremely effective. So this isn't a bad movie by any means. I just feel this is very sensitive subject matter that many won't take very well.

In the end, I think there are ways that this movie could've been made that would've been much more effective. I know this is T.C. Christensen and spiritually-inspiring movies are his forte, but I think one way to effectively make a movie based on these events would be to focus more on the events that actually happened and less on the spiritual aspect of it. I'm not saying they should've taken the spiritual aspect out completely, but making the whole thing more ambiguous as opposed to spelling everything out may have been more effective. If they wanted to spell it out, though, they should've spent a good portion of the movie trying to explain why God saves some people from tragedy, but yet lets other people die. There's ways to explain this without being offensive or insensitive. But instead I feel they ignored the issue and thus I think this movie will dig up a lot of painful emotions instead of inspiring a lot of people. If you do get inspired by watching this film, then I'm glad. I really am. I hope I am wrong. No, this is not a bad movie, but I don't think it's nearly as powerful as Christensen's other films and yes, I do think it end up doing more bad than good. Thus my grade for The Cokeville Miracle is a 6/10.

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