Breakthrough tells the story of John Smith, a middle school-aged boy who tragically almost lost his life after he was submerged in a frozen lake for almost 20 minutes, yet with the amazing dedication of the firefighters who rescued him and the doctors who restored his life, he managed to survive. It was a truly inspiring story that news outlets adored at the time, making this movie adaptation a highly anticipated release, particularly in the Christian community, but does the movie manage to adequately depict the events that occurred?
Unfortunately, while the craft elements of Breakthrough are done incredibly well (outside of the first 30 minutes, which felt like a student film), the narrative of this “true story” is at times incredibly misleading. Seemingly desperate to appeal to the Christian target audience, many of the events were dangerously fictionalized in order to seemingly discredit the work of the real heroes of the story.
First off, we have the firefighter Tommy Shine (Mike Colter), who in real life, fearlessly risked his life by jumping into a freezing lake and successfully recovered John Smith using his own training and bravery. In the movie, however, Shine found Smith after he heard “the voice of God” talking to him, starting a C-story of Shine becoming a Christian throughout the rest of the movie. The real Tommy Shine spoke about this fictionalized story after it was added to the book (written by Joyce Smith, John Smith’s mother). However, there is no evidence of his religious change and he never claimed that a voice talked to him. Nonetheless, the movie chose to practically discredit this real life hero by basically making God the one that found the kid, which feels incredibly disrespectful.
Secondly, the movie depicted the doctors that treated John Smith as incredibly incompetent. All of them were seen as standoffish, with none of them seemingly even wanting to treat John and were only working because the mother Joyce Smith (Chrissy Metz) was forcing them to. In actuality, the doctors worked tirelessly. Though they knew the chances of survival were slim, they never gave up, despite the movie showing them giving up right off the bat. Alas, the heroics of the doctors who saved John Smith were seemingly not good enough for the story the filmmakers wanted to tell, so instead, these heroes who trained their whole lives to save lives were depicted as rude and incompetent.
The saving grace of this movie came in the form of its star, Chrissy Metz, who gave an absolutely stunning performance as Joyce Smith. While Metz’s acting felt very bland during the first half hour of the movie (most likely due to poor direction), as soon as real emotion started to occur in the narrative, Metz did a full 180, giving what is certainly one of the most devastatingly compelling performances I have ever seen in a movie. Not only was Metz able to give off a stunning performance, but she was able to perform for long durations of time. Typically in movies like this, the editor will cut around actors so they only have to break down for a couple seconds at a time. In Breakthrough, however, the shots on Metz breaking down were held out, with some going uncut for one, long, emotionally driven minute.
Unfortunately, the fantastic performance by Chrissy Metz was not enough to redeem the misleading elements of this movie from 20th Century Fox. While it is certain to please many members of its target audience, Breakthrough is still an example of irresponsible filmmaking that bends the truth in order to push its own agenda. While it’s definitely an emotional roller coaster that can bring its audience to tears, it is told in a way that basically discredits the heroes who managed to save the life of this young man.