Louie Zamperini’s troubled childhood was saved by competitive running, a winding road that led to racing in the Olympics (Germany, 1936). But World War II tabled his running career, and after forty-seven days adrift at sea, internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp changed his life forever. This is the period of Lauren Hillenbrand’s non-fiction bestselling biography of the same name that I found myself lost in one day this summer – and why I was ecstatic about a preview screening of Unbroken.
Louie Zamperini’s life has captivated me, and I’ve devoured anything I could, from his posthumous book, Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In, to interviewing his daughter, Cissy. From my seat, director Angelina Jolie delivered a topnotch film that covers Zamperini’s wartime experience and several vignettes of his teenage years in a way that captivates and encourages. In the world we live in, a film worth cheering for is just what this critic ordered.
The film itself has an old-fashioned feel appropriate to the context, with scenes of violence and danger that are tense (one scene made the majority of the theater jump) without being gratuitous. Jack O’Connell’s Louie may be prettier than the real Zamperini, but the casting works, as does filling out some other roles with Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleason, and Jai Courtney. But the focus is on O’Connell primarily, except for the portions of the film that revolve around Zamperini’s two-time tormentor, Mutshiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Japanese rocker Miyavi).
Here, it’s a showdown between the tormentor and the would-be victim who refuses to give up. Several scenes from the trailer highlight the overall vibe in the POW camp and come straight from the book, highlighting the violence and degradation of the prisoners. My favorite theological image comes from the time when the Bird threatens a beating of another POW if the other two hundred-plus prisoners don’t punch Zamperini in the face. [In many ways, it echoes the moment when Katniss steps forward in the first Hunger Games story and takes her sister’s place… but that’s fiction.] This is servant leadership, and sacrifice, and it makes for a wildly motivating story for people of faith.
I haven’t been this sure or proactively encouraging folks to go see a film in… a long time. A protagonist who makes good decisions (refusing to stump for Tokyo Rose), who makes the most of his second chance (once he runs, he embraces the challenge), who encourages others (in the lifeboat, in the camp, etc.), who others look to for inspiration – this is a story that I find exciting. And it’s a reminder that in the midst of our ‘first world problems,’ things could be much worse. If we want to be our best, then we should bring a better attitude to life’s curve balls – because if Zamperini could survive all of that… we should basically get over our petty problems and differences.
The film (and its press) have critics divided in their criticism. Some call Zamperini “too good” or unrealistic. Is that because he doesn’t fight back, but refuses to become what he hates? Is it because he forgives, or chooses a non-violent path? [For further head scratching on peaceable soldiers as POWs, check out To End All Wars, based on the first Princeton chaplain’s memoir.] I’d channel Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It’s foreshadowed in the priest’s sermon in one of the film’s flashbacks to Zamperini’s childhood, about not fighting the night/darkness, but surviving it. And it’s why the film suddenly made sense to me for Christmastime.
If we believe, as Zamperini came to understand after a Billy Graham crusade, that Jesus came to Earth to be Immanuel, God with us, then we recognize that Jesus was in the dark with us but was not overcome by it. Yes, Jesus would go on to die on the cross and rise from the dead, allowing for salvation and the forgiveness of sins. But he also inspired because he suffered through the darkness. That is what this portion of the Zamperini story is about: surviving, encouraging others, inspiring them to believe they could make it through the war.
Other critics, mainly evangelical Christians from what I’ve read, are upset that the film isn’t more about faith. But this comes from folks who admit that they haven’t seen the film first of all, and secondly, seem to have skipped from the book to the movie. In Hillenbrand’s book, Zamperini doesn’t come to faith until 1949 (which we assume is actually what happened since it’s a NY Times bestseller in the non-fiction category), and only in the final third of the book after the events of the film. For Jolie to have included more faith than she did (regardless of what she believes) would have been to undercut the faithful story of Zamperini, a man she knew personally and loved from what all of the interviews with either of them said. What the film did set up was the way that God was moving in Zamperini’s life before he even really knew who God was (Methodists call that prevenient grace), hopefully made people interested enough to investigate his life and discover his faith after they’ve seen the movie, and apparently represents what Zamperini and his family wanted. In my reading of the book and watching of the film, it’s amazing that Jolie told a story with as much potential God-inflection in it as she did!
Maybe the real-life Zamperini was right that he was not a ‘hero’ in terms we’d use the word today; maybe instead, he was an inspiration. It’s that story, of stubborn, willful living – of existing through rather than explosively fighting (and dying) that mark the Zamperini movie that Jolie has made. We can’t control the dark, we can’t always see a way through it, but God is with us, we are not alone, and it is ours to survive, trust, and hope. That’s the story of Advent – and of any expectation we have of Jesus’ second coming – that God is moving even though the world around us is dark sometimes. That’s the kind of movie I can get fired up about in a world desperately looking for glimmers of light.