Before buying a ticket to “Unbroken,” buy Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name.Seriously. Reading the book first makes all the difference. Masterfully, Hillenbrand paints a picture of Louie Zamperini’s life, complete with details about the important people who influenced him and the defining moments that shaped him.
Unfortunately, not all of these details survived the final cut. Undertaking the herculean task of translating this story to film, director Angelina Jolie, along with her army of screenwriters (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard La Gravenese, and William Nicholson), produced an adaptation that remained faithful to the essence of Zamperini’s story, but ultimately presented an unbalanced portrayal of him.
Based on the true story of record-breaking athlete Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), the film shows a young man in his prime racing at the 1936 Olympics, with his sights set on competing at the next Olympic Games in Japan. Years later, after America enters World War II, he sets foot in Japan—not as an Olympian, but as a prisoner of war. Enduring harsh circumstances, including the physical and psychological abuse of Corporal Watanabe, a.k.a. “The Bird” (Takamasa Ishihara), Louie and his crewman Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) persevere, always hoping to return to their loved ones.
The film does a satisfactory job of explaining Louie’s backstory through flashbacks. One of them shows a hellion-turned-good-boy, thriving under the influence of his big brother Pete (Alex Russell), who encourages him to begin running. Pete tells him, “A minute of pain is worth a lifetime of glory”, a maxim Louie remembers when he’s a POW. As important as they are, the flashbacks occur at strange moments, interrupting important action scenes. It would have been better to use the flashbacks to break up the slow-moving scenes, where he’s wasting away on the raft or suffering in the prison camp.
Overall, even those who haven’t read the book will appreciate this portrayal of an Allied prisoner’s sacrifice, determination, and inner strength. In a country that loves to post bumper stickers opining that we can all “coexist,” it was jarring to watch the portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man. The veterans shown here held deep convictions about why they fought, and I left the theater with a renewed feeling of indebtedness to them. As the collective memory of World War II leaves us, it’s ever more important to record their stories. I’d take a true though uncomfortable combat memoir over another saccharine-laced “Pearl Harbor” any day.
The film was all the more wonderful to me because I knew I was watching a story of how God preserved one man’s life, even though the film doesn’t directly address his Christian faith. Of course, this is one of the main reasons why the film has been sharply criticized.
It’s not that the film leaves out faith entirely. One of the first flashbacks shows a 12-year-old Louie (C. J. Valleroy) in church, listening to the priest exhorting his flock to love their enemies. Thus, a major theme of the film is introduced. There are other moments of prayer: Louie’s mother (Maddalena Ischiale) is seen kneeling by her bed, praying for her son. Louie’s friend Phil prays after avoiding a plane crash.
While the film doesn’t deny his faith, it hesitates to go into detail. Specifically, I wasn’t a fan of the scene where Louie and Phil discuss God while lying on the raft gazing at the stars. Louie asks, “You think there’s some kind of grand plan? Like why’d we live and others didn’t?” Flippantly, Phil quips something about angels answering such questions in heaven. In reality, Phil sang hymns while they were at sea. Hillenbrand also points out that “in his quiet, private way, Phil was a deeply religious man, carrying a faith instilled in him by his parents.”
But the film does include the promise Louie makes to God during a frightening storm: “If You answer my prayers . . . get me through this . . . I’ll dedicate my life to you.” It would be years later, at a Billy Graham Crusade, that Louie remembered his prayer and dedicated his life to God.
Avoiding the details of Louie’s conversion and failing to finish the story is what leaves the film unbalanced. Considering much attention had been devoted to his torture, more time should have been given to the aftermath, the post-traumatic stress and the brokenness of his life. For despite the title of the book and film, Louie returned to the U.S. a broken man, tortured in his dreams by The Bird and consumed with vengeance. Years after his return, his marriage started falling apart. He continued to plot murder, drink too much, and throw away his money.
And it would have remained that way had it not been for Jesus.
The night Louie became a Christian, his nightmares about The Bird diminished. More than that, he found the strength to forgive his enemy through Jesus, the One who forgave His enemies and told his followers to do the same. Instead of showing a flashback of tween Louie in church, I would rather have seen him hearing about the power of forgiveness in a big tent revival meeting.
That said, I want to be clear about something. Many evangelicals are painting this as just another case of Hollywood exploiting the Christian demographic, shamelessly attempting to make as much money as possible without giving people what they’re really coming for. But in my view, this judgment seems rather harsh. (By the way, aren’t all film producers trying to make as much money as possible? Was it really necessary to divide “The Hobbit” into three movies?)
While Louie’s conversion to Christianity isn’t shown in the film, it is at least referenced at the end. If an aggressive marketing campaign brought this man’s story to light, it seems worth it. (Honestly, I wouldn’t have picked up the book had it not been for the film.) In the end, “Unbroken” is a good movie, and worth seeing. But knowing the rest of the story makes it even better.
Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality and for brief language, the film may not be appropriate for all family members, but leaves enough to the imagination that it’s suitable for most teens.
Image copyright Universal Pictures.
Ashley Chandler, a graduate of Columbia International University and St. John’s College, teaches, reads, and writes in Charlotte, North Carolina.