90 Minutes in Heaven
2015, PG-13, 120 min. Directed by Michael Polish. Starring Kate Bosworth, Hayden Christensen, Fred Dalton Thompson, Marshall Bell, Dwight Yoakam, Michael W. Smith, Jason Kennedy, David Clyde Carr, Catherine Carlen.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 11, 2015
The Christian faith-based film genre takes a dramatic leap forward with 90 Minutes in Heaven, a well-appointed work based on Don Piper’s bestseller, that, for a change, doesn’t look and sound as though it was written, performed, and recorded in some church basement. 90 Minutes in Heaven is, in fact, “A Michael Polish Picture,” as announced in the opening credits. Although he is best known as one half of a twin-brother filmmaking team with his sibling Mark, writer/director Michael Polish goes this project alone. However, it makes the elements of magic realism and stubborn faith that are evident in their films Jackpot, Northfork, and The Astronaut Farmer fit into an overall context through which to see their films.
Piper’s book, 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life, relates the Baptist minister’s story of his 1989 car crash in which he was horrifically injured and presumed dead for 90 minutes, during which time Piper asserts that he was in heaven. The power of prayer restored him to life (and helped during many other dark moments of his recovery). Since the film is “based on a true story,” these experiences are presented as facts, and have provided the foundation for Piper’s subsequent career as an inspirational speaker and author because his newfound ability to testify about the reality of heaven gave him a renewed sense of purpose.
Christensen (aka Anakin Skywalker) and Bosworth (Polish’s real-life wife) add a level of acting finesse to the film that has rarely been equaled in faith-based movies. This is particularly helpful in Christensen’s portrayal of Piper as a conflicted individual. He becomes his own worst enemy in his physical recovery because he feels shattered to be back on Earth after witnessing heaven. “Survival was going to be difficult because heaven was so glorious,” he observes. The film opens strongly with a vivid portrayal of the car crash, before loping backward a couple of days to give us a sense of the man and his family. Bosworth, as Eva Piper, also provides a complex performance, showing us the demands the crisis places on her as a mother, wife, and breadwinner (or perhaps, more accurately, the health insurance carrier). It’s a portrait of resilience and rationality, rather than blind faith.
Following the strong start, however, the film’s middle section feels a bit bloated and repetitive (except for Dwight Yoakam’s comedic turn as a personal-injury attorney) as Piper’s four-month hospital stay drags on, with little cooperation on his part. By the end of the picture, when he starts telling others about his 90 minutes in heaven, the images turn hackneyed and trite: brilliant light, a receiving line of dead loved ones at the pearly gates, a feeling transcending all physical needs and earthly wants. A postscript in which the real Don Piper preaches for a few minutes in effect signs the bestselling author’s name to the film. Nevertheless, 90 Minutes in Heaven stands out from the herd of films designed to spread the good word by telling a story with well-developed main characters, excellent cinematography (by Polish regular M. David Mullen), and other top-notch production elements.