SALT LAKE CITY — Those familiar with the work of filmmaker T.C. Christensen will notice something different about his new movie, which hit screens June 5.
After producing back-to-back historical Mormon pioneer films, Christensen has re-created "The Cokeville Miracle," the true story of a man and his wife taking an elementary school full of children and teachers hostage with a bomb in 1986 and the incredible events that unfolded.
Although the actual events took place in a small Wyoming community where the majority of residents belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christensen decided it would be more appropriate to tell the spiritually themed story from a nondenominational perspective, catering to a wider Christian audience and sharing a general religious messages of hope, family values, the power of prayer and recognizing God's miracles in a person's life.
"The reality is it shouldn't just be for Mormons," Christensen said in a phone interview from St. George, where he was promoting the movie. "There were other faiths, including agnostics, in that room. They were all blessed. I think it would be narrow to say, '85 percent of Cokeville is LDS, so this is a Mormon story.' I just wouldn’t feel good about that."
Christensen didn't set out to make a Christian movie. He liked "The Cokeville Miracle" because it was the most compelling story in front of him at the time, he said.
The story follows police investigator Ron Hartley (Jasen Wade) and his family as events transpire on the fateful day of May 16, 1986. Prior to the crisis at the elementary school, Hartley's faith in God has been shaken due to the grisly cases he has worked on as a cop. He's become a man who needs evidence of providence to believe in spiritual things.
In the process of telling Hartley's story, Christensen used a variety of techniques to appeal to a wider religious audience. For example, townspeople attend a nondenominational church led by a nonaffiliated clergyman. As the children address God in their prayers, some kids fold arms and bow heads while others reverently look around or do nothing at all. Visually, the audience will view scenes depicting generic paintings of Jesus, old family photo albums and references to Bible verses, portraying a general message of traditional Christian values and beliefs.
"The prayer theme is pretty heavy-handed," Christensen said. "But I decided early on that I liked the theme (that) God still does miracles today and his hand can be in our lives. You need to look for it, appreciate it and be thankful for it. Blessings are there if you look for them."
Christensen said the film was screened for groups of Christians in Dallas who had no problem with the content. The vast majority of audience members gave the film the highest possible rating, he said.
With that endorsement, it was decided "The Cokeville Miracle" would open on the same day in Dallas, Atlanta and other select cities across the United States where there is not a high Mormon concentration. It's an expensive move, but Christensen is confident the story will resonate with those audiences.
"We’re sticking our toes in the Bible Belt. From a business point of view, if you really go after it and open in 100 theaters through the South, that is expensive," Christensen said. "I’ve always felt that if the story is good, word-of-mouth is the best advertiser. I would rather open small, then hopefully people come home and tell their friends, 'You need to go see that.'"
Christensen said the story is both terrifying and beautiful.
"Some parts are hard to watch, where you have innocent kids in peril, but I feel like the payoff is worth it," Christensen said. "I hope it will make people feel like it was worth it to go through the scariness of seeing the madman with kids because then you can see the overall picture that God’s hand was involved."
"The Cokeville Miracle" is rated PG-13 for thematic material including violence and peril. The film contains scenes with explosions and one scary image of a woman engulfed in flames.
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