Most films culminate in a big screen moment, whether it’s the dramatic reunion of long lost loved ones or the explosive battle royale. 90 Minutes in Heaven is that rare film that starts at the end, and then moves forward to what comes after that. Under the artful direction of Michael Polish (Big Sur), Hayden Christensen and Kate Bosworth play Don and Eva Piper, the real-life couple whose experiences inspire the film. Based on the Pipers’ memoirs, 90 Minutes in Heaven and A Walk in the Dark, the film asks how we’re supposed to move forward when we’ve seen heaven but our world is so broken?
In 1988, returning from a pastors’ conference on a rain-soaked day, Don Piper was crushed by a truck. Pronounced dead in the scene, Piper is revived when a passerby feels called to pray for him. While Piper has a wonderful recollection of heaven, complete with hope-inspiring light and long-dead relatives, his earthly reality is excruciating and fragmented. Doctors try to put Piper back together while his wife and friends try to pick up the pieces of their lives and ministry.
I’ll leave what exactly Piper saw and how we respond to that for ourselves to other reviews. [I’m sure that a number of people will be happy to chime in about its ‘reliability’ or not.] I don’t think that is what the movie is really about. Polish set out to tell us what it was like for Piper’s body to be crushed by the truck and his soul to be fragmented by the pain … and the absence of his pure experience. While Heaven Is For Real became bogged down with its attempt to show us what heaven was like from a toddler’s perspective, heaven itself is a blip on 90 Minutes’ radar. What Polish is most concerned with here is how the Pipers move forward and how it impacts others.
You probably can ascertain, even if you’ve never read the book, that the Pipers’ story has made a difference. You just don’t make a movie about an event from thirty years ago if it didn’t matter! The truth is that Piper’s story, “hope is attainable and God loves you,” has reached millions in its book form. With a film version, the Pipers’ story should reach tens of millions.
While some movies make their message the main thing, eschewing skill and filmmaking for preachy narrative, 90 Minutes makes us believe that hope is possible because the Pipers’ story is remarkably dark and yet they rise above it. Christensen is superb as a broken man; Bosworth’s portrayal of Eva proves this humble woman’s resolve and deep, deep faith. The film itself proves funny, lyrical (stand up, Michael W. Smith!), and inspiring, without ever settling for a vanilla, naive look at pain and suffering.
A few days ago, I wrote in my review of The Age of Adaline that “If we’re honest with ourselves, we have questions about what happens next. In the next five minutes, the next five years, in the next … hereafter. Our fiction reflects this, as we read stories and watch movies about people who live forever, people who create technology to extend life, and people who come back from death.” 90 Minutes is a ripped-from-the-headlines experience that says we do know what comes next because the Bible tells us so.
Using John 14 as a snapshot of what Jesus had to say about the future (heaven, the kingdom of God, etc.), we can see that he had a pretty spectacular place in mind for us with God but he also said we were supposed to live a certain way here. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, and he told us to take hope even in the midst of things we can’t understand or which trouble us. Sure, Don Piper came back with a story of heaven, but 90 Minutes implies (strongly) that it matters how we live in the here and now.
Don’s recovery is physical, spiritual, and emotional; Eva’s growth occurs because she refuses to let go of her husband, even when he is pushing her away. It’s a powerful narrative that explores life after death, but it also pulls back the curtain on a troubling time in the Pipers’ marriage that we all can learn from.
Suffering is complicated and nearly guaranteed as part of life, but faith brings joy and peace in the midst of this, the hope in things we can’t see. Don Piper’s story of what he saw gave him hope and the resolve to tell others that they should hope, too. And cinematically, that is delivered in a dramatic, emotional retelling of the Pipers’ grace and strength.
For more on the film, check out our interview with the real-life couple, Michael Polish and Kate Bosworth, here.