Heaven is for Real
It would be churlish to complain about a Christian movie selling Jesus, something Heaven is for Real (fo’ sho’; Heaven is 4 Real might have been a better title) has at the forefront of its mind. And critiquing its take on Near Death Experiences (“NDEs”), from a rationalist/atheist perspective, would be talking to the hand, as it would be for any who who avow a spiritual dimension to a subject that some would reduce to mere brain chemistry (what’s surprising is that an atheist who isn’t a Dawkins-type zealot would waste their time setting it straight at all). The real (4 real) question, rather than taking issue with its faith-based partiality, is whether Randall Wallace has made a decent movie. On that front it’s distinctly underwhelming, fudging together a series of not-all-that-convincing conflicts and trials to sell an affirmative view of the Christian afterlife (well, the glass half-full side of that afterlife).
Based on a True Story, announce the opening titles, and it should be noted that, like baseball movies and a good proportion of their comedies, there is little interest in Christianity-based movies that aren’t also Biblical epics/period pieces outside of America. It deserves some consideration, as Heaven is for Real earned a significant ninety percent of its gross at home (big movies are moving ever more towards the seventy percent internationally). It was a significant sized summer sleeper hit, particularly given its modest budget, and identified that there’s a ripe believer-based audience out there that won’t just turn out for Narnia or Mel’s The Sadomasochism of the Christ. The unashamedly positive advertising probably broadened its appeal too, towards the Bruce Joel Rubin/Ghost crowd. This is where the selling Jesus comes in, apart from the mere fact of making the movie based on Todd Burjo and Lynn Vincent’s book.
It’s a case of attempting to preach to the unconverted (although I think it’s profoundly mistaken if Wallace thinks this particular topic will sway anyone) as apparently the experiences of Todd’s son Colton testified to the family’s Biblical beliefs in a much more rigid manner. Rather than merely coming away with benign sunshine and moonbeams, the youngster received confirmation of the existence of hell, Old Nick, and the end times (so that would be five horses up/down there in all; Colton also encountered a rainbow-coloured horse, which I can only guess derives from one of the non-canonical gospels). But that isn’t the kind of unfiltered starkness you want to expose moviegoers to, unless you’re intent on milking the fears of The Exorcist-esque lapsed Catholics.
The conflicts are also manufactured, quite reasonably, as otherwise Randall Wallace would have little in the way of a movie (he has little-enough even with a few stakes involved). Todd (Greg Kinnear) is a down-on-his-financial-luck pastor whose son is admitted to hospital with a ruptured appendix. It’s touch-and-go for a while, and Todd later learns that while undergoing surgery Colton was transported to heaven where he saw the great grandfather he’s never met (or seen, it seems), and Jesus (we don’t see the horse, alas) and the sister he knew nothing of, who died when his mother Sonja (Kelly Reilly) miscarried. Todd is not a little rocked by this, not knowing how to categorise his son’s experience. This befuddlement feeds into his ministry, and before long the church board is asking questions about his pastoral suitability (townsfolk even make jokes at his expense; oh, the travails!)
It seems the real Todd never had the crisis of faith provoked by Colton’s revelations, and never came into conflict with the church board. Since the two points interweave, that makes a lot of sense. While watching the picture I was surprised that Todd should react in a manner so askance, wondering at his wonder, and become so obsessive over whether his son’s experience was (4) real. The more likely reaction from a believer would have been to accept it as an unquestionable message from God (much in the way that less palatable bits of The Bible are inelegantly skipped).
The issues with the church board are easier to swallow (particularly since the marvellous Margo Martindale and Thomas Hayden Church – cast on the strength of his surname – sit on it), since even broad-brush, keep-it-light (or especially?) weekend churchgoers found here are wont to be possessive of their own private interpretation of doctrine (Martindale is also given a caveat of grieving for the loss of her own son – don’t worry though, Margo, you’ll get your vision in time!)
As such, the picture presents a bit of a muddle in its attempts to appeal to the broadest possible audience base. The bits of Colton’s vision we do see include angels with wings (while sniffing its nose at some cherub types being unrealistic to the scriptures!) and a vision of Christ who matches the one painted by a Lithuanian Christian NDE girl (the most alarming aspect of this is not that he resembles your common-or-garden Jesus picture of the past few centuries, but that he has a particular similarity to a bearded Barry Manilow).
The Burjos are most definitely not your staid, starchy, Christians either. They have sex, for starters, which is quite shocking. And, if randy sex talk is out, there’s the kind of mild innuendo that any pastor who has seen Nicolas Roeg’s Puffball would muster towards Kelly Reilly. Todd is a fantastic guy who teaches wrestling, gets paid in carpet and does the volunteer fireman thing. And he plays baseball (he breaks his leg during this; one of the disappointing aspects of the movie is that he doesn’t discuss the trials of faith brought by God, establishing that he is a New Testament Christian with no awareness of the Book of Job).
Todd also suffers from hilarious kidney stones (permissible toilet humour there) and gets into sing-a-longs of songs sung by well-known heterosexual Christian Freddie Mercury (We Will Rock You). Which is to say, he practices a particularly toothless, inclusive and inoffensive form of Christianity and it’s an attitude that spreads throughout the picture as a whole. It’s a “nice” movie, and it lacks any balls at all. The worst one can say about it is that the Burpos clearly practice corporal punishment and are all for their children beating up kids who verbally abuse them. But I’m sure neither of those things are a barrier to passing through the Pearly Gates on a rainbow-coloured horse.
The details that Colton could not possibly know are used to leverage the “This really happened” argument (aware of what his father and mother are doing while he is under the knife, as well as the appearances and fates of family members), but none of this conflicts with more general non-denominational NDE experiences. Unsurprisingly, Wallace opts not to explore this path, as it would create a universal theme rather than a Jesus-based one.
The subject is broached briefly when Colton goes to see a psychologist (Nancy Sorel), who offers a rational explanation for the phenomenon (“No, he didn’t die” proclaims Todd, as if that is the deciding factor in such experiences). Apart from the sequence being another of the “Why would Todd, a pastor, do this?” (Sorel’s Dr Slater pretty much asks him), it is crudely positioned to present Slater as the one who clearly doesn’t believe for the most primary of reasons; she lost her husband, so God is dead to her. If only the poor woman had faith! It’s thin, given the crisis Todd is going through. As Sonja says, “Why can’t it just be a mystery?”
Wallace’s movie career has been chequered, including historically contentious fare Braveheart, Pearl Harbour and We Were Soldiers; Heaven is for Real confirms the effect of a lack of Mad Mel’s fiery faith on a Christian movie, particularly in trying to fashion a story when there is none. Kinnear is actually very good, a believably earnest pastor type with an informal but authoritative pulpit style. Connor Corum strikes out as Colton; smiling beatifically cannot make up for his lack of acting chops. The visions of heaven, from the comfort of the local church, are all shafts of light and choirs (and angel wings); this is not the most illustrious of cinematographer Dean Semler’s work.
I do wonder if it’s possible to make this kind of sincerity palatable? At very least, it requires artfulness well beyond Wallace’s reach. To preach without provoking resentment in the audience is a difficult nut to crack. Given the liberties taken with the source material, it might have been more effective (more dramatic, certainly) to tell this as a non-believer transformed, but that would defeat Wallace’s desire to present this as truth. The trouble is, it’s a truth that fails to convince as a uniquely divine message (why the Christian NDE as opposed to any other individual’s?) And it’s relayed via someone who should surely not falter in the face of a recognised phenomenon; certainly, in no way should it challenge his beliefs. Well, maybe that rainbow horse is a poser.