Preview/Review: The Cokeville Miracle. A New Film From T. C. Christensen.

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.[1]

That's the bad guy on the left.

That’s the bad guy on the left.

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.[2]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.”


  1. So I saw the film at the LDS Film Festival in March and wrote up my initial reaction (linked to this comment). The Cokeville Miracle is very well made, but the theological implications I think are deeper and more troubling than what’s hinted at in your post.

    The film isn’t simply reporting the play-by-play events of the incident and noting that many aspects of it are unexplained, it attempts to draws conclusions about “how God works” and “the power of prayer” that run into obvious problems when considered against 9/11, Sandy Hook, Columbine, etc… Did the victims of those tragedies (or their families) not pray enough beforehand, then? Were they not ‘righteous’ or ‘worthy’ enough for God’s blessing?

    Just acknowledging that “other hostage situations have not ended in the same way as Cokeville [without innocent deaths]” in a end-title card doesn’t get the filmmakers off the hook, in my opinion, when their thesis carries the strong and unavoidable implication that the Cokeville kids (and parents) contributed to their own salvation by calling down divine power from the heavens, and therefore any who weren’t saved in the same manner obviously didn’t do enough to obtain the same blessings. Mentioning Sandy Hook and Columbine (as director T.C.Christensen did at the screening) and then basically shrugging about how those incidents fit with his film’s depiction of “how God works” in the world isn’t good enough when the film will almost certainly act as a slap in the face to any righteous parent who has lost a child to accident, disease, or the actions of evil individuals without receiving any divine intervention in the same way.

    LDS theology has a decent enough answer to “the problem of evil” that causes faith crises when tragedies occur — that free agency is an important enough principle in the plan of salvation for God to stay His hand when men and women choose to do evil. But other aspects of LDS theology undercut this at the same time: when Mormons testify of God intervening in human actions randomly and arbitrarily anyway, whether it is praying to find lost car keys or a good parking spot. How God interacts in the world and in what form is a deep question for anyone, Mormon or otherwise, but the film’s oversimplified conclusions are likely to raise more questions than provide answers.

    I won’t specifically encourage people NOT to see it — it is a well-acted and tense movie that many people will enjoy — but I hope potential viewers at least consider the theological implications of what it is saying. Would you stand in front of a woman who was unable to conceive and talk loudly about how God has blessed you with children and testify how that shows that “God answers the prayers of the righteous”? Would you visit a 9/11 widow and share a story about a family member who was prompted to stay home from the World Trade Center that day, and how blessed your family was that God loves and protects you? I think most of us in those situations would simply be silently thankful in our hearts for any perceived blessings and find something wiser and more compassionate to say publicly to those who weren’t as lucky. I don’t know that the approach taken by The Cokeville Miracle has that wisdom or tact on how to show thankfulness to God without offending others at the same time.

  2. KMB, it’s true that the logic of divine blessing or intervention can be difficult and puzzling, even painful. Whether Cokeville promotes faith or pain, is part of the long history of religion. Where do we draw a line here? The theological questions are large.

  3. To me the line is the difference between saying, “We were saved from evil men by the grace of God and we don’t know why” and “We were saved by the grace of God and we DO know why: because of our prayers and righteousness.” The first shows thankfulness AND humility, the second thankfulness and pride, along with (implied) judgmentalness about others not as fortunate.

  4. In this sort of dialogue its important to remember that our beliefs are formed through our experience. If we receive revelations or see miracles in our lives its important to hold onto that even when we can’t completely explain why things happen the way they do.

    I saw the Cokeville Miracle at LDSFF as well and what fascinated me was the narrative structure from a doubters’ point of view. It presents what happened( the bomb going off, the children surviving etc.), various factors that possibly led to the explosion being less disastrous than it could have been, and ultimately to what those present claimed they saw( angels). These characters simply know what they experienced and can’t deny it. One could ask ‘if God was going to save them from the explosion by setting things in motion prior to the explosion that spared them, then why would he have allowed the bomber to get as far as he did in the first place?’

    And of course this question about why God sometimes intervenes miraculously as a response to prayer and at other times does not, is a profound question. As well as an ongoing dialogue it deserves a lot of pondering from all of us.

  5. Lynn Lonsdale says:

    Reed Smoot and Gordon Lonsdale would be gently surprised to hear that TC was the cinematographer for the Work and the Glory series.

  6. Lynn Lonsdale, if the background info I had for the film was in error, apologies.

  7. T.C. Christensen was the cinematographer for the first movie in the Work and the Glory series. Reed Smoot shot the first half of the second movie in the series. Gordon Lonsdale filmed the second half of the second movie and the third movie in the series.

  8. I understand your point of view very well KMB. I am a survivor of that hostage situation. (I wish to remain anonymous please). These very thoughts are why I didn’t support the movie and why I am struggling with it now. I understand the reason others want to share this inspirational story, which it is. I don’t fault them for that. I didn’t see angels that day. Yet I have no reason not to believe those that claim they did. They are honest and good people. Even though I didn’t see any angels, when the bomb went off I instinctively knew what I needed to do to get out of that classroom. And I was able to do so without any harm to me. There are many events surrounding the bombing that cannot be easily explained, and perhaps only best explained as miraculous and due to divine intervention. However, I have always struggled to reconcile why I was saved in this particular situation and why other school children in other awful situations were not. I don’t have any good answers for this. I have dealt with some survivor’s guilt over the years, especially when I hear about other tragedies. This movie has increased those feelings, which are very uncomfortable for me. Have I lived my life well enough to be worth saving? Sometimes I feel that my life and actions need to be better than good enough to compensate for others who weren’t so lucky. These feelings have caused me anxiety and guilt at times.

    I too feel that the film, while done with good intentions, doesn’t adequately address these issues. Besides retelling the events of that day, the film has a definite message that it wants to portray. I understand very well why some will find this message offensive and difficult. I am sorry about this. I very rarely share my experience with others because I don’t want them to think that I am somehow more special or better than others whose outcomes are different. I don’t believe my/our prayers are any better/stronger than others. I just don’t know why this happened they way it did. And yet, I feel that others may judge this attitude as ungrateful. I am not. I am very, very grateful for my life and the second-chance I’ve had. I don’t know why we were all saved, I honestly don’t, but I do want to say that even though I don’t know why I am immensely grateful to be here.

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