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Watch This Review

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Movie Review

On Jan. 18, 1989—a cool, rainy Texas day—Don Piper died.

He hadn't planned to. Don was just on his way back from a church conference, eager to see his wife, Eva, and their three kids again. But on the road, Don's Taurus was smashed by a semi, crushed like a Coke can. A human body can't put up much fight against tons of rapidly twisting steel. The paramedics took one look at him, did a cursory check for a pulse, and declared the Baptist pastor dead. They covered the car with a tarp.

It was then that a fellow pastor, stuck in the ensuing traffic jam, was moved to pray for the dead man. He walked to the car, and when he began singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," the cooling corpse started singing too.

It was a miracle.

But miracles can be painful. Death comes with some undeclared side effects. Much of Don's body was crushed. Some of his bones had been essentially vaporized. A full four-and-a-half inches of his left femur—typically the strongest bone in the body—had been smashed to grit. Don is alive, but it's going to take mountains of time and effort as he struggles through unimaginable pain for him to get back to any semblance of normal.

And then there was this—the strange, beautiful visions he had when everyone thought he was gone. Don knew what those visions were: He was a pastor, after all. He had a clear idea of exactly where he'd go once he slipped the bonds of earth. So he figured he'd been to heaven and back—a sacred secret he'd hold for months.

But here's the thing about heaven: Once you get there, you don't want to leave. You certainly wouldn't want to return to a broken body on this broken earth. His jar of clay was a fractured mess, a leaky vessel still brimming with agony and anguish. To get a glimpse of wonder and then be thrown into horror … well, can anyone blame him for wanting to go back to being dead again?

Not that that helped his family and friends, though, who wouldn't hear about Don's road trip to heaven for months yet. All they saw was a man in pain—a man who didn't seem to want to live anymore.

90 Minutes in Heaven is based on Don Piper's best-selling book, which Piper tells us is a true account of his experiences. The movie, Piper says, largely reflects what really happened …

Positive Elements

But while Don is the film's protagonist, he's not necessarily its hero. In truth, it's the people around him who form the inspirational bedrock to this story.

Eva is particularly winsome here, soldiering through a fathomless time of darkness—working full time to keep the insurance benefits rolling in, consulting with lawyers over potential lawsuits, dealing with the steady drone of everyday life along with the shriek of this unwanted tragedy. She sticks close to Don through it all, even when he's so lost in heavenly reverie mixed with earthly pain that he refuses to speak to her.

A steady stream of others come through Don's hospital doors, doing their best to cheer him up (or, sometimes, to give him a good figurative kick in the rear). Jay Perkins, the pastor who takes over Don's church while he's slowly recovering, tells the morose man that he's depriving people of a great gift—the gift of being able to care for him a little. "This is one of the lessons God wants you to learn," he says. A teen girl in the next room, who, like Don, has been fitted with what looks like a medieval torture device designed to stretch leg bones, sends him a note of encouragement. His nurse is a great example of how to be tough but caring. One of his best friends organizes a huge, multi-church prayer effort. His father—a military veteran of three wars—leans over and whispers, "Son, I'd give anything to trade places with you."

Don eventually comes to appreciate these fine folks around him, even if he's not exactly thrilled to be back in his corporeal carcass. When his daughter asks him to dance, he struggles out of his wheelchair and does his best. When people ask him if he needs something, Don says that he does—even if he just makes it up. And because of his experiences, Don is able to speak so much better into the lives of those who deal with physical pain—particularly those undergoing the same horrific bone-growth procedure forced on him. He gives one young injured man a card, telling him to call, day or night, should he want to talk.

Spiritual Content

And, of course, Don uses his experiences as a catalyst to talk about heaven—and how people can get there.

90 Minutes in Heaven is an intrinsically spiritual story with core plot points that won't easily compute for some among the faithful. But there's more here than just one guy who claims he's visited heaven. Don's told in the movie, and he comes to believe it himself, that he was given a glimpse of glory specifically so he could tell people about it—and use that as a conduit to talk about Jesus serving as our only way into heaven.

We see only cinematic glimpses of Don's visions of heaven. The movie speaks most specifically about the people he meets there—his grandfather, his great-grandmother, friends who passed on before. Don talks about the music sounding like the rushing of angel's wings, only a thousand times more impressive.

More important to the story, it seems, is life lived well and for God here on this mortal plane. We see that Don was just as devoted to his Savior before the accident as after. He speaks at a church conference and talks about planting a new church. When he's on his fateful drive, he's listening and humming along to praise music, his typed sermon sitting by his side.

Of course Don still asks God why He didn't keep Him up there in heaven with Him—why He sent him back. "Please let me go home!" he says. But as he begins to heal, he begins to thank God for the little victories he experiences along the way. In the hospital, Eva prays, quoting Jeremiah 29:11, "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Lots of other people pray as well. As mentioned, the pastor who prays over Don's broken body also sings a hymn.

Sexual Content

Before leaving for the conference, Don suggests that Eva go with him, cuddling with his wife and saying they could cozy up for the night.

Violent Content

Don's crash is pretty horrible, and we see it a couple of times. The truck actually seems to run over the car in the head-on collision. And the aftermath is even worse: When Don's first pulled from the wreckage, he's covered in blood. A good washing does nothing but accentuate the gore: Half of his face is bluish-black, and his eye is grotesquely swollen shut. Cuts cover much of the skin we see. Eva is given a look at his X-rays, which reveal that whole chunks of bone are clearly not where they ought to be.

Don is eventually fitted with metal exoskeleton assists on his leg and arm, both of which have rods that connect to the bone. Adjusting the apparatuses is incredibly painful, and Don is in obvious pain for much of the movie.

Crude or Profane Language


Drug and Alcohol Content

Pain meds only. Clearly in agony, Don begs for more medicine, and he's shown clicking a self-administered painkiller button repeatedly.

Other Negative Elements

A couple of mild "pee" jokes revolve around Don's incapacitation. His complicated apparatus gets stuck on the toilet once. Don talks about needing to vomit.


"Where do you go?" Eva asks him in frustration. "You're not even here anymore." Don refuses to answer. He may not be dead physically, but mentally he's checked out. He's ready to move on.

It reminded me pretty forcefully of Prince Andrei in War and Peace. Near the end of Tolstoy's classic book, the prince lies in bed, healing from a serious injury. Even though the wound wasn't fatal, Andrei has lost his will to live. He slowly fades away amid pleas for him to come back. A quick passage:

"'Yes, it was death! I died—and woke up. Yes, death is an awakening!' And all at once it grew light in his soul and the veil that till then concealed the unknown was lifted from his spiritual vision. He felt as if powers till then confined within him had been liberated, and that strange lightness did not again leave him."

Don Piper—the real Don Piper—would likely say that he still has what Tolstoy described as "that strange lightness." Yes, Piper still walks around with the rest of us. He says that God has entrusted him with a sacred mission. But his reality, as he talked about it in a Q&A after screening the movie, is heaven: Life as we know it is comparatively surreal. Heaven is "simply the most real thing that has happened to me," he said.

Onscreen, though, the most real thing that happens is here on earth. Not a bad thing, maybe, since it resonates far more than the digital visions of heaven—be they of actual experience or dreamlike revelation. Because splashed across movie screens they are inherently manmade visions that can't help but fall short.

This is a film about life after death, but not in the way we usually use the phrase. Don Piper died. He had to find a way to live again—not as he wanted to live, but as he had to live, through all the tragedy and disappointment and sometimes horror this mortal muddle can bring. He had to find a way to not fade, as Prince Andrei did, but to live, as Piper believes God wanted him to.

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Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

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Hayden Christensen as Don Piper; Kate Bosworth as Eva Piper; Elizabeth Hunter as Nicole Piper; Hudson Meek as Chris Piper; Bobby Batson as Joe Piper; David Clyde Carr as Eva's Dad; Catherine Carlen as Eva's Mom; Dwight Yoakam as Jon; Fred Thompson as Jay Perkins


Michael Polish ( )


Samuel Goldwyn



Record Label



In Theaters

September 11, 2015

On Video

December 1, 2015

Year Published



Paul Asay

Content Caution

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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