It must have been in about 2014 that I first read the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Let me tell you, it about gutted me.
The Life of Louis Zamperini, POW
Unbroken is the true story of United States olympian Louis Zamperini who was shot down over the Pacific during World War II and became a prisoner of war in Japan.
After surviving floating in a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for 46 days, Zamperini and one of his fellow airmen were taken to an absolute hell on earth. He spent the next two years being endlessly humiliated, starved, and tortured by his prison guard, “The Bird.”
Ultimately, Zamperini survived the war and his imprisonment. He returned to his family in southern California.
The Movie Adaptation of Unbroken
The book goes on to tell about this transition back to “normal” life. It is at this point that the new movie Unbroken: Path to Redemption (released in the U.S. on September 14th) picks up Zamperini’s story.
I always find stories of redemption, conversion, or “love conquers all” to be quite compelling. So when I saw the preview of this movie, I knew I wanted to see it. But I was also a little hesitant. Unfortunately, it seems to me that a lot of faith-based movies tend to be formulaic, maybe a little dull, and quite strong in the cheese-factor, if you know what I mean.
After watching it, though, I think it’s better to look at it through two different lenses. First, on its merits as a movie. Then, with an eye toward the message it tries to portray.
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The best thing I can say about the cinematic aspects of this movie is that it was stunning to watch. The costumers and set designers did a phenomenal job of recreating the allure and beauty of the mid-to-late 1940s. From clothing and accessories to cars and coffee pots, there was effort put into the smallest detail. I thoroughly enjoyed the visuals.
Director Harold Cronk (of God’s Not Dead) and his team of screenwriters seemed to miss the mark as far as the story goes, however. For an hour and a half, the audience watches Zamperini (played quite well by Samuel Hunt) spiral more and more out of control as he grapples with depression, alcoholism, and PTSD (although it hadn’t been named as such in the 1940s).
We witness him swing from the heights of love for his new wife and daughter to the crushing lows of nightmares, flashbacks, and hallucinations. But the resolution—the path to redemption, as it were—takes only about the last 10 minutes of the film. And then it’s over.
As an audience member, I was left kind of scratching my head. If the movie was supposed to be about this man’s “path to redemption,” shouldn’t the story have been more about that? It seemed to me that the title could more fittingly have been Unbroken: Path Straight to Hell, but Magically Everything Turns Out Just Fine.
Early in the movie, at a family gathering to celebrate his return, we see Zamperini talking with his family’s priest. The priest hails the young man’s return to safety as a miracle. But Zamperini shoots him down. He says that it wasn’t God who saved him, but a couple of atom bombs that did the trick. The priest then tells him not to discount the part God played in bringing his survival. Zamperini looks at the priest with a sad smile and says, “I don’t, Padre. I give Him all the blame.”
We see where all of that blame leads him. He tries to continue to rely on the strength and perseverance that had served him so well as an Olympic athlete and as a POW. But he simply can’t do it. And the downward spiral finally lands him on a seat at a Billy Graham revival, something he had begrudgingly agreed to attend with his wife.
Billy Graham (played by his grandson, Will Graham) talks to the gathered congregation about being distanced from the Lord. What is it that caused that distance? How have they gotten to where they are today? Why do they no longer believe? Then he says, “…because you can’t see Him and can’t hear Him, you shut yourself away from Him.” And that’s the most dangerous place to be.
Moved and afraid, Zamperini tries to run out of the tent while everyone’s heads are bowed in prayer. But Reverend Graham sees him and tells him to stop. It is at this moment in the movie that Zamperini makes the choice to believe again. He finally sees that it was indeed God who kept him alive through his imprisonment and who brought his wife and daughter into his life. And that, instead of blaming God, he should offer his life as thanks and praise.
Redemption and Forgiveness
Without doubt, Louis Zamperini’s return to faith is nothing short of a miracle. But, to me, the even greater miracle is what he does with it. Through the grace of God, Zamperini amends his life. He quits drinking and focuses his attention back on his family.
Most remarkably, though, he learns to forgive not only his captors and torturers, but he learns to forgive both God and himself. He becomes a living, breathing testament to the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:
If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. -Matthew 6:14
What Humans are Truly Capable Of
In my humble opinion, if the storytellers had chosen to focus on the forgiveness humans are capable of through the redemption offered to us by Christ, they could have produced a significantly better movie. After all, we are all tormented by our own personal demons; we all have our own histories of pain and suffering to work through. And, like Louis Zamperini, we often find that trying to do so of our own accord only leads to more hurt and heartbreak for ourselves and for our loved ones.
But when we accept the redemption that Jesus longs to share with us, when we seek His forgiveness and, in turn, forgive others, well, that’s a story worth being told, don’t you think?
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