Angels have played a significant role in Christian thought through the centuries, and in recent years an important scholarly literature has developed around the subject. Books and articles treat many different genres and periods, from the apostolic, to the medieval, to the early modern era and beyond (our own Ben Park and Sam Brown have work in the area, among others). Such work is important for many reasons, among them the study of the function and nature of angels (as people considered them) as well how these beings link to epistemological, ontological, cosmological, and other areas of religious thought. Current work shows that ideas regarding angels have and do play fundamental roles in cultural, religious, social, and literary worlds with surprising cross-pollination. Mormons are certainly familiar with the role angels play in their religion, both in its founding and more subtly in its past and current lay devotional thought.
The idea of supernatural beings who carry messages from, and do the bidding of the gods is a very old one, and biblical stories of angels acting as divine agents often mark important theological turning points. The angelic experiences told by Joseph Smith seem to portray angels as dignified, somewhat impersonal extentions of divinity but angel stories are not restricted to this narrow vision. Just as the “cult” of angels replaced the cult of Saints in Reformation Europe, angelic ministers replaced in some sense the Protestant individualism of “personal savior” for Mormons. And Mormons found a somewhat unique angelology that allowed them to reinvent Saints and Angels, in effect as one and the same.
The idea of guardian angels has been a staple in Mormonism over the years and it assumed at times a cult like status, rising and falling when leaders addressed the subject but the notion is ancient and not confined to Mormonism in any case. The Church Fathers in the early centuries of the Christian era saw passages like Matthew 18:1 to mean people inherited from birth a specific angel to watch over them during their lives, guiding them in moral choices, protecting them from mishaps, and finally escorting them to heaven (assuming that was their fate I suppose). The idea was expanded to cities, towns, regiments or armies, kingdoms, etc. in medieval times. Theologians like Aquinas affirmed these angels in their devotional writing. Medieval works tended to ascribe angelic intervention in all kinds of situations whether minor or life and death, and one senses this is part of the devotional mindset that finds God in the motion of the stars, the passing seasons, and beauties of the earth. This belief that angels are watching over us, leads me to the subject of the post.
T. C. Christensen is known in Latter-day Saint circles for his Mormon-themed films, including Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration and Emma Smith: My Story. He was cinematographer for the Work and the Glory films that brought the popular Gerald Lund novels to the screen. This time, Christensen has moved out of the Mormon genre, bringing us a drama based on a 1986 school hostage incident that took place in the tiny Wyoming town of Cokeville.
In 1979, Cokeville town marshall David Young was fired at the end of his six month probationary period. Young and his wife Doris Waters moved to Arizona where she supported David and youngest daughter Princess (“Penny,” in the film) from his first marriage. Meanwhile David worked through his personal manifesto which he titled, Zero = Infinity. David’s intellect was deep enough to Doris that she apparently considered him an unfathomable genius. But he was slowly losing his grip on reality. A rather murky plan evolved in David’s mind to return to Cokeville and take the students of the small Cokeville elementary school hostage. Young’s plan ended in his and Doris’s death when she accidentally triggered an explosive device the pair brought with them. The hostages escaped with some injuries, but no deaths.
As time went by, the former hostages began to relate accounts of their ordeal that framed it, not as a tragedy, but a time of spiritual power. Stories of prayer circles, visions of angels, and divine intervention claimed the narrative of the Young’s attack on the school.
Christensen’s film centers around Sheriff Ron Hartley (played by Jasen Wade), a skeptical man, jaded by his encounters with the criminal world. Hartley’s family are Christians of some unnamed denomination. (Cokeville is in fact a largely Mormon community, but the film does not situate itself in Christensen’s recent corpus of Mormon-centric efforts like Seventeen Miracles and Ephraim’s Rescue.)
Hartley’s encounter with the reports of hostages (including two of his children) detailing their miraculous experiences challenges his skeptical investigative demeanor and the film plays off this conflict.
The Cokeville Miracle is an independent film and its production values reflect that fact—but set design shows attention to detail and the 1986 setting of the film (there are no cell phones people, and the cars are vintage). I felt the script was stiff at times and characters under deep psychological strain seem to have lines whose grittiness rates as family home evening material–certainly a consequence of Christensen’s intended audience–though I think the film may still be too intense for some children. Nathan Stevens plays Young’s deteriorating mental state with skill, but the script sometimes gives him less help than it might. The standout performance in the film comes from Kymberly Mellen who does Doris (Waters) Young justice, giving us a characterization of a woman who is herself held hostage, not by guns and bombs, but the spell of a man over against her own insecurities. Mellen’s craft shows us her fear, admiration, compassion, and reflected madness as her doom unfolds.
Christensen’s effort to make a nondenominational film of faith succeeds to the degree that it relies on the simple stories of the hostages of Cokeville. But few of these characters seem three-dimensional. We identify with the protagonist (Hartley) on some level–we don’t see visions or hear voices from beyond–like him, we only see their effects. However, it’s difficult to feel much more connection to Hartley–we don’t know where he comes from, what makes him what he is, what makes him real. But for Christensen’s purpose this is a minor issue–this is an action movie in point of fact. The film is meant to demonstrate that God works in the world and it does this through a tragic story where innocents saw themselves as saved by Angelic Intervention. For Latter-day Saints, if you enjoyed Christensen’s previous efforts with Mormon films, I think you will enjoy this one. It will be interesting to see how the film fares at the box office given the intention to appeal to a broader viewership.
The Cokeville Miracle.
Written and Directed by T. C. Christensen.
Produced by T. C. Christensen and Ron Tanner
Music by Christian Davis
Edited by Tanner Christiansen
In release, June 5, 2015.
 After the final scene of the film, the director added a note to the effect that not every situation like Cokeville has this relatively happy ending, and that the film makers don’t pretend to have an explanation of that, yet they feel the Cokeville story has value nonetheless. No doubt many who see the film will compare the outcome with Sandy Hook. I did, and my wife, who viewed the film with me, observed that this candor was appreciated. One other caveat is important here. The film begins with the usual disclaimer: “Based on a True Story.” This is meaningful when considering dialogue, character development, and emphasis. However, three survivors of Cokeville were present at the screening to which I was invited. One of them remarked that the film was an accurate portrayal of his experience.
 In many ways, the film is modest in its religiosity. Mormon memes exist, from Janice Kapp Perry’s “A Child’s Prayer” to the Hartley’s family prayers but that’s about it. And it certainly makes no effort to go for any heavy-handed Evangelical theology/argument like the recent, “God is not Dead.”