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Breakthrough is a 2019 movie about the "true" story of a kid who falls through ice and ends up surviving, but the movie exaggerates and alters the truth in order to have a more Christian message. It is based on the 2015 case of John Smith from suburban St Louis, Missouri, who fell through ice and survived despite having had no pulse for 45 minutes after rescue, survival attributed by some to the prayers of his mother Joyce Smith.[1][2] The case is also described in a 2017 book, The Impossible, by Joyce Smith and Ginger Kolbaba (Wikipedia curiously classifies the book as a "novel" despite it being intended as non-fiction).[3]

The film was directed by Roxann Dawson, a former actor who is an experienced director of TV drama including episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise, The Closer, Cold Case, and The Good Wife. The cast includes Chrissy Metz, best known for her role in This Is Us, as the boy's mother, and former That 70s Show actor Topher Grace as a pastor. Mike Colter, who starred as Luke Cage in the eponymous series, plays one of the rescuers, while the boy John Smith is played by Marcel Ruiz of One Day at a Time (2017-19). It was produced by Fox 2000 Pictures, a division of 20th Century Fox. Its budget was reportedly $14 million.[4]


The movie starts off with a kid who lives in a small town, and after some horse play on a frozen lake end up falling through the ice and ends up surviving. The movie heavily features prayer scenes and the kid ends up surviving not by science but by the "power of God". The movie also features a scene where one of the rescuers recalls hearing a voice and is told that it wasn't his subconscious but rather "the voice of God".

Critical reaction[edit]

Breakthrough received an unusually positive critical response for a Christian movie. It currently stands at 65% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 52 reviews.[5] Many critics criticised it for its formulaic nature and sermonising; it is clearly aimed at the Christian inspirational film market rather than the general agnostic or atheist moviegoer.[6][7] However there was also praise for Chrissy Metz's central performance as the mother, and for the film's "daring depiction of a complex, flawed, fierce and faithful woman".[7]


The basic event was reported in news media at the time, and the boy's case appears to have been broadly as described.[1] Like all films "based on a true story" the film makes substantial deviations from actual events, and there are also variations from the portrayal of the incident in the non-fiction book The Impossible. "Based on a true story" is actually an overused marketing ploy used by the film industry and has nothing to do with reality.[8]

The website History Vs Hollywood investigated. They confirmed that John Smith was underwater for 15 minutes. The central claim of the film, that John Smith was without a heartbeat for almost an hour yet recovered, is apparently true. Joyce Smith prayed before he was revived, but it's impossible to say that her prayer caused his recovery. The water was very cold, 40° F (4° C), and that undoubtedly helped save his life by preserving brain function.[9] There are other similar cases of survival: a 2 year old girl spent 66 minutes immersed in water at below 5° C (41° F), with no pulse and a rectal temperature of 19° C when recovered, but she survived after medical care. Such cases are unusual because the brain does not normally cool quickly enough to preserve itself even when immersed in very cold water: it's not entirely clear what was the specific mechanism in such cases, but the human body has considerable abilities to regulate temperature and deal with extreme cold.[10] The movie like other religious films mistakes scientifically explainable rare medical phenomena for an "act of god(s)" [11][12][13]

History Vs Hollywood found some inaccuracies. The film portrays rescuer Tommy Shine as hearing a voice telling him to keep looking for the boy (supposedly the voice of God or something of that ilk); the book mentions he felt some vague compulsion to go on looking but doesn't mention the voice. The film also portrays Tommy Shine as an agnostic converted to Christianity by his experience that day; this isn't in the book and appears to have been fabricated for the film.[9]

The film is unusual in casting African American actors to play real-life white people: normally the opposite happens to cries of "whitewashing", but the real-life people were reportedly happy in this case.[2]

Product placement[edit]

One of the movie's producers is Golden State Warriors player Stephen Curry, and the basketball team receives a lot of mentions in the film. Just because you're Christian doesn't mean you can't advertise stuff.[14]

External links[edit]