The Cokeville Miracle Raises Questions about Celebrating Miracles “When We See Them”
I recently attended a preview of the Cokeville Miracle, a new film about a real elementary school hostage crisis that took place in 1989. The Cokeville Miracle was written and directed by T.C. Christensen, who is best known for the films 17 Miracles and Ephraim’s Rescue. It is produced by Mormons but does not make overt references to the LDS faith. However, to anyone familiar with the LDS faith and culture, the Mormonism in this film will be obviously apparent.
I checked my watch in confusion when the hostage crisis ended in the film. It didn’t seem like the movie had lasted long enough to be over yet, and it wasn’t. The movie continues after the crisis ends, following one of the parents of the child hostages as he tries to process the horrific event. It is refreshing to see a film probe into the aftermath of violence, instead of stopping with the action, but the transition between these two parts of the film is a little rough. It almost seems like the film is two short films of completely different genres glued together. The first part of the film feels like a crime/action movie, with the audience looking on omnisciently. The last half is more like a promotional religious film, told from the perspective of one of the people affected. The last half of the film almost feels like one person’s testimony, illustrated in video.
The first half of the movie is stronger than the last half, but that is not surprising, given the more challenging content taken on in the last half. Lots of films (including this one) do a great job of portraying an intense, violent event, but fewer attempt the challenge of following people as they recover and interpret what happened. I felt that the film tried a little too hard to persuade the audience to accept the conclusions of the one parent the film focused in on at the end: the students were saved by divine intervention in direct response to prayer. The characters in the film, trapped in 1986, couldn’t see what the film’s audience had seen at Columbine High School in 1999 or at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. In their experience, prayer appeared to have a direct, transactional result in survival. But here we are in 2015, and we have sadly witnessed other outcomes to school violence in spite of equally fervent prayers.
The filmmakers anticipated this critique and added a written statement at the end of the movie that was thought-provoking for me, suggesting that although not every act of violence results in miraculous intervention, we need to acknowledge miracles when we see them. Have I let the criminals who enacted these horrific crimes rob me of my ability to recognize the divine? I see the spiritual value of acknowledging tender mercies every day, but I wonder how I can claim that God is helping me with minutiae while people in real need, like the victims of school violence, are somehow overlooked. This written endnote to the movie will keep me thinking for awhile; I wish the filmmakers had explored that issue more thoroughly within the context of the film’s story.
May 16th will be the 29th anniversary of the Cokeville hostage crisis. As a way to respect those whose lives have been impacted by school violence, the filmmakers have decided not to run any advertising, promotional events or social media on May 16th. Instead, they are inviting us to turn off our devices and spend three hours with loved ones on May 16. If you would like to talk about this experience online afterwards, use the hashtag #SeeMiracles.
Post Note: The Cokeville Miracle passed the Bechdel test. The Exponent is a feminist blog and it is an Exponent tradition to include the Bechdel test in movie reviews. There was a minor outcry the last time I reviewed a movie because some did not like that I applied the Bechdel test to the film. They pointed out to me that the film, Freetown, had other redeeming qualities to feminists in spite of failing the Bechdel test, such as having a female scriptwriter. I agree completely. The Bechdel test is certainly not a comprehensive measure of film quality or woman-friendliness. In my review of Freetown, for example. I described several reasons for feminists to see the film in spite of the lack of female characters. However, I do think the Bechdel test has value as one measure of interest to feminists and I intend to keep using it.