The Cokeville Miracle is unquestionably a powerful and affecting film about a terrible, traumatic event. It was ably filmed and directed by T. C. Christensen, nicely edited by Tanner Christensen, features a lovely musical score by Christian Davis and Rob Gardner, and was beautifully acted by an exceptional cast. It’s a film about faith, the efficacy of prayer, and, as the title suggests, about the possibility of miracles. I saw it on a weekday, a late morning screening, and was surprised to see the theater half full. Listening to the comments of the rest of the audience as they left, they clearly found the film inspiring and testimony-affirming. In most respects, it has to be seen as one of the strongest LDS films since God’s Army in 1999.
And yet, and yet, and yet . . . . But give me a moment to think it through.
In 1986, in the small ranching community of Cokeville, Wyoming, children at the town’s elementary school were taken hostage by a heavily armed, bomb wielding fanatic named David Young (Nathan Stevens), and by his wife, Doris Young (Kym Mellon). The film tells us that there were 99 child hostages–other sources say it was 136 children, and 18 adults. (I don’t know what purpose was served by changing the number of hostages). After a standoff lasting two and a half hours, the bomb detonated. Both Youngs died, and the explosion injured, but did not kill, the children or their teachers. The scenes involving the capture of the school, the taking of hostages, and David Young’s gradual mental breakdown, were as riveting as you might imagine. All the child actors were excellent in those scenes, as were the actors playing the teachers.
After the crisis was over, some of the children began to claim that they had seen personages dressed in white protecting them. Many of the children identified the angels from old family photos as deceased family members. A sheriff’s deputy, Ron Hartley (Jasen Wade), charged with investigating the event, becomes the lens through which we see its aftermath, as he puts together the various angel stories, and also the forensic analysis of Young’s bomb, and why it was so much less destructive than it ought to have been. Hartley, who seems to be suffering from some kind of job-related PTSD, is going through a crisis of faith, which the testimony of his children (both of whom were in the school), help him resolve.
And it’s at that point, in the film’s depiction of Hartley’s difficulties with his testimony, that I began to feel uneasy. First of all, it seems strange to me that the screenplay would make Hartley its protagonist, when he had essentially nothing to do with the event. He was out of town when the Youngs showed up at the school, and didn’t arrive on the scene until after the bomb exploded. Wade gives a fine performance, but it seems like an odd choice. What it suggests is that the main purpose of the film is not actually to tell the story of this terrible event, but to guide and direct our response to it. No, not guide and direct: mandate. It’s a film about a miracle, period. There are no ambiguities here, no other permissible reactions. Angels saved those kids. End of story.
But human nature, cross-grained and rebellious, recoils from this narrative approach. It brought out my inner cynic, not my inner believer. And so, I dig in my heels. I thought the film was very powerful, right up to the third act. It was nicely made up to that point. But the film’s Mormon-centric didacticism amplified more contrary responses.
Like this, from Wikipedia:
After a two-and-a-half hour standoff, the children were becoming restless, so the teachers led them in prayer. The praying appeared to make David Young agitated and he decided to leave the room. Before leaving the room, David Young attached the bomb’s detonation device to his wife’s wrist. When the children became increasingly loud, Doris Young began begging the teachers to settle the group down. At one point she lifted her arm sharply and the bomb went off prematurely.
In the film, the children decide to pray on their own, unprompted by their teachers. In the film, the teachers also pray, but quietly, to themselves. In the film, David doesn’t become agitated by their prayers; he becomes agitated, frankly, because, as portrayed by Stevens, he was bughouse nuts. And there’s not much doubt that David Young was crazy. But the actual guy was Unabomber-style-crazy; he showed up at the school with a long, rambling manifesto. In the film, he mentions ‘Brave New World.’ One of the teachers tells us it’s a reference to reincarnation. Uh, not the Aldous Huxley novel everyone had to read in high school? Reincarnation? In fact, though, the teacher wouldn’t have known that, but authorities did; it was the central idea in his manifesto. He thought he would rule the dead children after they died and were reincarnated. But if the Wikipedia account of the event is true (and I tend to believe it, because of other corroborating details from other sources), then the children’s prayer was an act of aggressive resistance. Good for them, too. But perhaps not quite as . . .pious.
And, in its best moments, the film went there too; depicted little kid brattiness. And I loved it for that. One obnoxious little girl, for example, kept correcting Doris Young’s syntax, pretty much every time she spoke. I adored that little girl. When one teacher created a ‘magic box’ around David Young, a taped-off space kids were not supposed to enter, we see two little boys doing exactly what little boys have done from time immemorial–crossed the line, broke the rule, pushed the boundaries. I loved those little boys. I loved it when the film got the human stuff right.
Other difficulties: the film says only 2 of the bomb’s blasting caps went off, because the leads to the other 14 had been severed. Who severed the leads? We’re meant to conclude that angels did it. But most other sources say there only 5 blasting caps, 4 of them with severed leads. (A minor detail, but details are what convince us). So did angels sever 4 leads? Isn’t it more likely that Doris Young (who was surely deluded and abused and not all there, but who was at least more humane and well-intentioned than her husband) did the other ones? As portrayed in the film by Mellon, Doris is far and away the most interesting character in the film, and far more sympathetic than her husband, but that also fits other accounts of her. In fact, the bomb didn’t even kill her–David Young shot her after it exploded, before ending his own life. Did she sabotage it? Isn’t that at least a possibility? In fact, was she busy cutting wires when the children’s loud prayers distracted her? Wo, could the kids’ praying have been a proximate cause for the explosion? How much more intriguing would the film have been if it had gone there?
Also, the blast was ineffectually defuse, in part because the teachers had opened the windows in the classroom, giving the fireball a path out. So here’s my question: if the children were spared at least in part due to specific actions, specific, human, non-divine choices made by the teachers and by Doris Young, shouldn’t that possibility have been presented in the film? And wouldn’t that alternate explanation also be faith-affirming, but just in a different way?
Because for me, cynical secular humanist that I undoubtedly am, the film was genuinely inspiring, and became increasingly less so the harder it worked, in the end, to force me down one specific understanding of the event. What I found inspiring were those teachers. One teacher (and I’m sorry that I didn’t catch the character’s name, but she was played by Barta Heiner), was the last person out of the room. She stayed behind to get the last child out, despite bullets flying, from cartridges Young placed in the bomb. Earlier, she volunteered, to Young, to give up her life for the lives of the children, and she lived up to that same principle after the bomb exploded. And I totally believe it. Teachers would. In that situation, with a few teachers and 136 children, teachers would do whatever it took to save them. And we see those teachers, in that classroom behave heroically.
My gosh, that’s inspiring. At Sandy Hook, Sandy Hochsprung and Mary Shurloch were the first two victims in the school. Both teachers. A third teacher, Natalie Hammond, was badly wounded, but survived. Another teacher, Lauren Rousseau, was killed trying to keep the killer out of her classroom, as was Rachel D’Avino, a behavioral therapist. A school custodian was also shot, but survived. These teachers were, absolutely and unequivocally, heroes. But any other teacher, in any other school in America, would do what they did. And that’s what inspires me.
I don’t know whether real angels really intervened in Cokeville, Wyoming. Some children said they saw angels; most did not. Adults did not. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the men and women charged with the education of the children at that school were heroes. Could angels have been there? Sure. And I think it would be swell if angels intervened in school shootings. I wish Heavenly Father tasked them to do just that; sent angels to Nigeria to protect the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, for example, sent heavenly beings to Sandy Hook and to Columbine and to Utóya Island in Norway. I believe in God, and I humble myself before Him, and the infinite mystery of why and where He chooses to intervene, when evil encroaches.
But I do believe this; that on those blessedly rare occasions when some deranged individual chooses a school to act out some fantasy of absolute evil, our response should be national, legal, and political, aimed at doing whatever we can to not let deranged individuals have access to weaponry. And the Second Amendment be hanged–it’s about militias, not individuals, and who cares anyway. Let bad guys have as much access to non-rifled muzzle-loading muskets as they want. But that’s a subject for another day, and another soapbox.
Anyway, in many respects, this is an awfully good film. I wish it were a better one. If it had preached a bit less zealously, it might have been exceptional. As it was, the best I can say is that it was ultimately unconvincing. Tell the story; let us figure it out. Don’t force a response. As Sgt. Friday was fond of saying, ‘just the facts.’