The true story of Louis Zamperini, a steel-willed Italian American who survived atrocities of WWII, including a plane crash, being adrift at sea for 45 days, and unspeakable brutality at the hands of Japanese captors in a POW camp.
Read the book. I will start with my punchline. I will give away my conclusion. I cannot be more emphatic. Read the book.
This is not to say that the movie, Unbroken is a bad movie. It is not. It is only half a movie. It is a set up without a pay off. It is a well-written, well-directed and well-acted half-story that views like an exciting build up to a powerful third act, and like a tease, is cut off before it can end, leaving you unsatisfied. It is a story about survival and the triumph of the human will without any real soul to it.
The story begins with a young Louis in his bombardier position on a WWII plane running missions. Act One flashes back to his youth, where we see Louis comes from a religious Italian family. He is a troublemaker, whose brother finds an outlet for Louis’ restlessness in running. This running ultimately takes him to the 1932 Olympics in Berlin, where Louis runs an impressive, though not winning race.
The War however, stops Louis’ dreams, and he finds himself on a bombing squad that crash lands in the ocean and sets him and two other survivors adrift for a record setting 45 days before capture by the Japanese.
The last half of the movie is then about his will to survive the brutality of a particular Japanese POW guard nicknamed, “The Bird.” We see Louis’ will standing strong against a truly barbaric and evil Bird, who seeks to break him by beating him into the ground.
The theme of the movie is about the unbeatable human will to survive the evil men do to one another. Early on, Louis’ brother gives him a slogan that is reiterated later, “If you can take it, you can make it.” Another phrase shows up, “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” And of course there are some amazing moments of pain indeed in this festival of suffering, that will bring you to tears, as Louis defies his captors in will if not in actual behavior.
The problem with it is that survival is as deep as it keeps. Mere survival and the power of the will. This is a shallow and unsatisfying story that lacks real transcendence of meaning. Which is such a shame because it sets up for a powerful redemption of the hero, and it even points in that direction, but we are left starving for that redemption, because it is “off-screen” and after the movie is over in a mere title card.
Jolie sets us up for the redemption that Louis is to have when in his life as a young child, we hear a sermon of a pastor preaching that “God sent his son, Jesus Christ not to wage war, but to forgive. To love thine enemy.” The midpoint transformation of the hero even occurs, when on the open sea, about to die, Louis says a prayer to God, “If you see me through this, I swear I’ll dedicate my whole life to you.”
Jolie does a fantastic job of setting up the feel of the first half of the story of Unbroken the book. But the absolute POWER of Unbroken is not in the will to survive, but in the will to forgive. That is the second half of the story she cut out. Zamperini went home to America and began to plot how to go back to Japan and kill The Bird. But when he became a Christian at a Billy Graham Crusade, he transformed and went back to forgive the Bird and the others. It was not until Zamperini was broken by God that he found his redemption. Jolie puts this on a title card at the end, “Louis did make good on his promise to serve God. He found that the way forward was not revenge, but forgiveness.” And it tells us he went back to forgive his captors.
Sadly, the very heart of what makes Unbroken so powerful a story of redemption is to Jolie, a mere postscript.
There is even a scene in the film where Louis takes on himself a beating in order to protect a fellow prisoner from being beaten. And this is a beautiful moving example of self sacrifice. But in the end, the only spirituality that is understood comes from the mouth of the praying religious pilot who, when asked by Louis whether there is some kind of grand plan by God, replies, “You just go on living, the best you can, have some fun along the way. And when you die, you meet an angel who tells you all the answers to your questions about life.” This seems more like the uneducated lack of understanding spirituality by the writers and director than anything an actual Christian would say or believe.
Look, I know how impossible it is to make a movie of a whole book. You have to cut a lot out and you can’t get it all on the screen. And I know that Zamperini, before his death, gave his blessing on the movie because he wanted it to reach a wider audience. But from a strictly professional storytelling perspective, Jolie and her writers (otherwise very competent screenwriters) set up a spiritual story that they didn’t pay off with redemption. They left it at mere survival and the will, a rather shallow and empty story without transcendence. And in that sense, I don’t expect secular screenwriters to care about transcendence. They don’t believe in true transcendence. They believe that survival is the strongest human urge, because they themselves do not understand the power and beauty of spiritual redemption and sin atonement. They are like Louis before his redemption. They are unbroken – and unforgiven.
I wrote about this sad phenomenon of secular storytellers eviscerating the faith and spiritual element of movies about Christians. In my book, Word Pictures, I list off nine popular movies made by secular filmmakers, who either ignored, or cut out the faith of the heroes whose stories were intimately driven by their spiritual faith. Hotel Rwanda, The Pursuit of Happyness, Becoming Jane, Anna and the King, Pocahontas, The New World, Walk the Line, Hardball, and Valkerie. Some of them, like Unbroken, may have at best hinted at the faith.
I won’t attack or accuse these filmmakers of malicious motives. They may have had them, they may have not. But I certainly understand why they would subvert those stories and spin them to communicate their own humanistic worldview of self-salvation through good works or other. Secular storytellers do not believe in transcendence, so when they see the faith of these people, they simply are blind to its power. They must of necessity reinterpret that spiritual transcendence through their own paradigm of humanistic immanence.
They have no transcendence in their lives, so their stories communicate no transcendence.
Unbroken, the movie? Good, but falling way short of great storytelling. I would rather you read the book Unbroken. It will change your life.
And if you want to watch a true story about spiritual transcendence, and the power of forgiveness in a Japanese POW camp, watch To End All Wars, starring Kiefer Sutherland, on Amazon Movies On Demand. It’s got everything the movie Unbroken has about survival in suffering injustice. But it also has on-screen what Unbroken doesn’t: redemption, atonement, transcendence.
7 comments on “Unbroken: Broken Storytelling. Read the Book. See the Movie To End All Wars.”
Thanks for your review. I did notice some inconsistencies in the film, like the beard coming and going and coming and going, other than some of of these problems, I thought the movie was beautifully shot and not at all demeaning toward Christianity. I did read the book and I was already prepared for the worst and I tried to reserve judgement. That they would not have every detail from the book was a forgone conclusion. She does have the family in a church setting in one scene, but what seemed interesting to me was they lived in California, but the pastor had a distinct accent, similar to Billy Graham’s southern draw.
To me, the film made me think of what it would be like if The History Channel were to reproduce, It’s a Wonderful Life. You are spot on when you say, the movie was about “his survival.” And, it wouldn’t have made a difference if they would have included the last three chapters in subscript. What turned me off was that there wasn’t much of a climax. Perhaps they thought they would be labeled too sympathetic toward Christianity if they would have included the whole conclusion. But, what they failed to ask their selves was, what made the story so inspiring for them to want to make the movie? Was it really just his suffering, or that he survived it, that impressed them?
J. Paul, yeah, it’s not about merely cutting out the Christian redemption, it is about good storytelling that doesn’t just lead up to something and then just stop and not deliver.
Great column. I’m buying your book, Word Pictures. Can’t wait to read it.
Thanks, John. I hope it helps.
Great book, not so great movie. Would’ve thought the Coen brothers to want to bring more. Guess not. For instance, what POW camp allows their prisoners to keep their gold rings? Louie wore his once first interned. Never happen in real life. Read a book Jolie.