In 2003, Colton Burpo, the 5-year-old son of Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo, had emergency surgery for a burst appendix, and though he didn’t technically “die” or have a “near-death experience,” he left his body for approximately three (Earth) minutes and visited heaven — where he met Jesus (still bearing the marks of his crucifixion), Mary, the Holy Spirit, angels in white choir robes with wings, the grandfather who perished long before he was born, and the sister who died in his mother’s womb but was now growing normally, beautifully. Because heaven time is longer than Earth time, Colton was able to observe many things that conformed to descriptions in Scripture, of which he — being 5 — could obviously have had no prior knowledge.
Pastor Burpo’s account of his son’s journey became a huge best seller and is now an exceedingly gentle movie called Heaven Is for Real, directed by Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers). The piano music is spare. The light falls tenderly on these good Nebraskans and their family farms. As Todd Burpo, Greg Kinnear is very fine, with a light, breezy manner but no trace of glibness. The Colton of little blond snub-nosed Connor Corum has an abstracted air that makes you think he still has ethereal beings drifting around in his head.
The story, too, has been softened for a multiplex audience. In the book, for example, Colton says you only go to heaven if you believe in Jesus, but onscreen there’s no mention of an exclusionary rule. Nor are there long citations from Revelations (a work that has alarmed many commentators with its forecast of Armageddon and Holy War), to which Pastor Burpo turns for confirmation of Colton’s visions. Details of the boy’s journey aren’t as literal. In the book, for example, the grandfather happens to be sitting beside the Holy Spirit when Colton enters the kingdom, and the boy also mentions Mary either kneeling before the throne of God or standing beside Jesus. (“She still loves him like a mom,” Colton explains.) The filmmakers’ thinking must have been that Colton’s accounts would be undercut by a resemblance to Hollywood movies and church pageants. Best to keep it vague.
His credibility is challenged, though, by other characters. The boy’s mother, Sonja Burpo (Kelly Reilly), has little patience for Pastor Burpo’s growing certainty that his son did indeed go somewhere — at least until she hears about her unborn child doing so well in heaven. Margo Martindale plays the church pianist whose son died in Iraq and doesn’t think Pastor Burpo should be turning the weekly services into a media circus. “Heaven and hell are concepts that have been used to control and frighten people,” she tells Burpo, and pushes to have him replaced by another pastor — which would be disastrous for the Burpos, who can’t pay their bills as it is. But soon she realizes that her skepticism is related to the death of her son — and that she has to let go of her anger. Even the non-believing psychiatrist to whom Pastor Burpo first turned shows up smiling tearily for his last climactic sermon.
I saw Heaven Is for Real in a Brooklyn multiplex at 9:50 p.m. on a weeknight. I thought I’d have the place to myself, but the theater was half full, and no one talked during the movie. They were especially riveted in the scene where Colton takes his father to a pediatric oncology wing and — as if he knows exactly who he’s looking for — zeroes in on an ashen, emaciated boy who can no longer speak. Colton tells the boy it’s going to be okay, better than okay. He has seen where the boy is going and knows that nothing bad will happen to him.
I doubt many things — almost everything, to be frank — but I have no doubt that my Heaven Is for Real audience slept better that night.