Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Heaven is for Real arrives. the highly-anticipated based on the New York Time #1 bestselling book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent opens in theaters nationwide today (4/16)

Synopsis: Heaven if for Real tells the true story of Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), a small-town church pastor who must confront his own true beliefs about God and the afterlife when his four-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) nearly dies during emergency surgery, after recovering, begins recounting a near-death experience includes a journey to Heaven, an encounter Jesus and details about his family’s history that he could not have known. How Todd and his family (which includes his wife Sonja [Kelly Reilly] and Colton’s older sister Cassie [Lane Styles]) and their church community deal with a situation that both supports what they purport to believe yet challenges it at the same time drives the drama forward. Cast: Greg Kinnear (Rake, The Kennedys), Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows), Thomas Haden Church (We Bought a Zoo, Wings), Connor Corum, Lane Styles and Margo Martindale (The Americans, The Millers, Justified). Directed by Randall Wallace (Secretariat). Screenplay by Randall Wallace (Braveheart) and Christopher Parker. Produced by Joe Roth and T.D. Jakes.

My review: With Heaven is for Real sharing marquis space with God’s Not Dead (already a box office hit), it wouldn’t be too surprising if someone got drunk and mistook their local theater for their local church and the movie titles for sermon subjects.

If they were sermons, God’s Not Dead would be more apt to be described as being of the fire-and-brimstone variety. Heaven is for Real, on the other hand, strikes a much less condescending stance toward those who may be skeptical toward its central premise and even believers who may, nonetheless, doubt Colton’s experience.  I criticized God’s Not Dead as a missed opportunity to engage those outside the choir in a film dealing with a big question involving faith, the makers of Heaven is for Real seize the opportunity by offering a judgment-free story that tackles the question (or, more accurately, answer) put forth in its title.

God’s Not Dead deals with a college debate over the existence of God and, therefore, may have, in my view, benefited from a title that is less-weighted toward a conclusion (even though I agree with that conclusion. The declarative title works for Heaven is for Real though because the story is about four-year-old boy’s innocent and matter-of-fact recollection of what happened to him as he hovered on the brink of death — literally hovered as, at one point, we see his POV from above the operating table.

While the movie definitely tilts toward belief in Colton’s story, skeptics are given due respect which is one reason the film will likely outdraw its predecessor at the box office. Of course, having a Sony-sized marketing budget won’t hurt on that score either.

Another difference, of course, is the fact that Heaven is for Real is based on true events — but it also conveys a far truer tone than the somewhat strident and manipulative God’s Not Dead is fiction. It’s portrayal of the life of a small turn church congregation rings true as we witness how Colton’s story is viewed by different people. While there is some taunting (i.e. in the school playground), believers and skeptics (inside and outside the church) are all thoroughly believable with not a cartoon cutout to be found.

In terms of performances, Greg Kinnear (who has certainly come a long way since Talk Soup) is perfectly cast as the well-intentioned pastor and father who is thrown off his game by his son’s experience. While his edgy lawyer series Rake flounders on Fox, this may well prove to be his defining role of 2014.  Kelly Reilly is equally good as his supportive wife who, at the same time, aches for their family to resume their normal lives.  Thomas Haden Church is fine as the kindly town banker (which certainly plays against some current stereotypes) and Margo Martindale gives a standout performance as a congregant concerned that the media attention given to Colton’s story threatens to turn their little church into something resembling a circus exhibit. Probably the most memorable though performance is probably given by newcomer Connor Corum who is so natural in front of the camera. He reminds of (an even younger version of) Ricky Schroder in The Champ.

The script by Randall Wallace and Christopher Parker is a bit slow-paced at the start but picks up as we come to know the characters and definitely held my interest to the very end — which, BTW, included a really nice performance of a song called Compass, written by Diane Warren and performed by Rascal Flatts. I dare say, the faith-filled song (heard in the trailer above) is good enough to have its Best Song Oscar nomination rescinded by the Academy next year.

Heaven is for Real is highly-recommended.


Bringing Heaven to HollywoodRandall Wallace won an Oscar nomination for writing the screenplay o Braveheart, the 1995 blockbuster that propelled him unto Hollywood’s A-list. Since then his writing and/or directing credits have included such noteworthy films as The Man in the Iron Mask (a personal favorite of mine), Pearl Harbor, We Were Soldiers, The Rookie and Secretariat. His films have always been faith-friendly, reflecting his personal beliefs, and Heaven is for Real certainly is consistent with that.

JWK: Why did you choose to do Heaven is for Real? How did it come to you?

RANDALL WALLACE: This movie came to me through Sony and Joe Roth, the producer. I worked with Joe before on Pearl Harbor and respect him tremendously. I read the book and was both excited and moved by it. When I’m choosing projects I look for something that has the power to excite my imagination and move my heart and this did that.

JWK: Why did it do that?

RW: Well, I’m a father myself and I also, at one point, studied for the ministry. So, I can relate to Todd powerfully and I could also relate to Colton — to the story of a boy. I was going to church my whole life and I would stare at the pictures (on) the stained-glass windows and the pictures on the walls of the church, pictures in my Bible and hear the sermons about Heaven. I could really connect with the thought of what it would be like if one day your son walked in and said that “I’ve been to Heaven.” It was the stuff of great drama.

JWK: How has being involved in this project — and talking with the Burpos — affected your own faith?

RW: I think it’s two-fold. One is that it’s connected me more with the beauty of what we have here — Heaven on Earth. With the Lord’s Prayer — “on Earth as it is in Heaven” — which is a big part of the movie. That phrase becomes powerful. To be able to look at the beauty of this Earth and to think that God has hinted at Heaven with what we see here and, especially with the love that we feel with each other. In knowing love we get a sense of knowing God.

The other thing is that ethereal hope — that sense of a Heaven beyond time that is glorious and full of grace. As I’ve had different people from my parents’ generation pass on — many of them fairly recently, including my own mother — I have had a sense of comfort having looked at the issue of this movie.

JWK: You studied to be a minister. Of what denomination?

RW: I grew up a Baptist and went to seminary at Methodist school, Duke University, but I also don’t worry too much about denominations. I love what John Wesley said — “If our hearts are together, let’s not worry about whether our heads are together. If our hearts are together, then let’s joins hands.” So, I try to do that regardless of denominations.

JWK: How did you move from seminary into show business? How did that transition come about?

RW: I majored in religion for my entire undergraduate career at Duke University and then I went to seminary for a year unsure whether or not I really had the call to be a minister. I spoke with a pastor of my home church and told him I was going to seminary. He said “Do you feel the call to be a minister?” and I said “Honestly, I don’t. I know it’s the greatest call you could have but I’m not feeling that call myself. He said “Well, you know, you’re wrong. It’s not the greatest call. The greatest call is whatever calling God has for you.” That was a wonderful piece of pastoring that he did for me because he let me know that God would find a way to let me know what I should be doing.”

And I love writing. I’ve always been drawn to that and felt a particular joy in it — like the phrase in Chariots of Fire: “God made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure.” God gave me a love of writing and (I knew) to do it I would feel God’s pleasure.

I first went to Nashville. After a couple of years, I kept going west and ended up in Los Angeles. I began to write stories. Braveheart was my first feature film.

JWK: You also worked in television — with writer/producer Stephen J. Cannell (Hunter, Broken Badges).

RW: Yeah, Steve Cannell was my mentor, one of my main ones. A great man. A great teacher, as well. I worked in television and began to work in features.

JWK: Was working in episodic television good training for features?

RW: I think so. I think it’s fantastic training. It teaches you to focus on story and that’s certainly what this was about. This (Heaven is for Real) is a fantastic story that plays like a mystery. It draws you into the emotion of the story. That’s the greatest thing. It’s not an intellectual exercise. I found the story powerfully entertaining but best of all it was a story that connected to your emotions.

JWK: What is your relationship with Todd and Colton like?

RW: I know Todd best of all. I would call Todd and get to know him. I found him to be really down to earth and also comforting — and a real friend. Every time I would call and talk before we got off the phone he would always want to pray for me. I found that quite moving.

JWK: So, you could feel that his faith was quite real.

RW: Absolutely.

JWK: Did you personally feel like it was perhaps the Hand of God moving you to this project?

RW: I do feel that. I believe that God is carrying us whether we know it or not and is always present. I love what C.S. Lewis said — “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” I’ve always wanted my life and my work to be something that was letting my soul participate with the souls of others. I have really felt that process (with) this picture.

JWK: Do you see a higher value in storytelling than just captivating an audience in an interesting and enthralling tale? Is there a purpose beyond the entertainment?

RW: I do. I think storytelling is the greatest activity of any culture. Storytelling is how you build a family, how you pass along identity. As I wrote in the dedication in the book for Braveheart, it’s the tales we tell ourselves that make us who we are. Jesus told stories. Rather than trying to argue intellectual points and theology, he would tell a story and the power of that story was that it went beyond intellectualization. It went beyond argument. It told an example of life that everyone could recognize was true. That’s what movies do at their best. They give us a story and let us decide how to connect that story with the rest of our lives.

That’s what I loved about Heaven is for Real. The book was just a great story and then we have to ask ourselves how do we feel about this story? What do we think of it? What do we do about it? How does it connect us with the rest of our lives?

JWK: What do you have coming up after Heaven is for Real? I know you’re working on a film called Conscientious Objector about America’s first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor.

RW: Yes. That is a story that I worked on with Walden, a wonderful company…I’ve been working on some projects of my own that I’ve been working on for a long time. One called Love and Honor and I’m also working on some television projects that may prove to be really exciting — one involving the Civil War. So, it could be an interesting year.

JWK: Television has been rather dark over the past decade or so. Do you think the pendulum is starting to swing toward heartfelt storytelling on the small screen as well as the big screen?

RW: I think that television lately has been extremely dark and, in some ways, cynical but I also think that people who are writing those shows probably feel exactly as I do — that sometimes the darkness of a story can highlight the light in a story. There’s a lot of cynical stuff but I think it may be even more in movies now where you see so many movies about cynical and corrupted characters. That’s the state of many movies right now but movies, television, all of culture, there’s always going to be a battle between the stories that are cynical and stories that are hopeful.

JWK: Is there anything you like to add about Heaven is for Real that I haven’t asked you about?

RW: Thank you. I think the biggest thing is that it’s a story that Christian audiences will feel a lot of comfort and joy in. An exciting aspect of it has been people who seem themselves as outside the faith have also responded powerfully to the emotions and the hope of the story. So, this is a movie that everyone can go to see — believer, non-believer and of any age and of both sexes. It’s a movie the whole family can see together. That’s something I’m really excited about.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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