A month after seeing Unbroken for the first time, I went back with a group of folks from church to see what new insights I might glean from director Angelina Jolie’s cinematic translation of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. I found myself moved again by this powerful true story of Louie Zamperini’s stubborn perseverance and forgiveness, and felt compelled to again propose that everyone should see this flick – regardless of what critics or your neighbors might have said. (For an actual review, click here.)
The bulk of the arguments I hear or read fall into two camps. They either state that Jolie failed to tell the ‘whole’ story, or the Christian one, because she encapsulates the impact of Billy Graham on Zamperini’s PTSD and alcoholism, or they complain that Zamperini seems ‘too’ good amidst a world of war movie cliches. To the first, I will gently point out after reading the book, interviewing Zamperini’s daughter, and reading several other interviews with principal players, that the film is what Louie himself wanted. I will also discuss the points of how Jolie artfully includes those Christian elements, momentarily.
To the second complaint, I must ask, do these critics not know that it’s a true story, researched by Hillenbrand and others, compiled, printed, and sold as a bestselling work of non-fiction? If Zamperini is better than expected in war movie situations, is it not more a question of why we as a society are so flummoxed by a POW who is willing to forgive? Maybe it has more to do with our expectations of society today, that heroes aren’t able to ride on white horses, that sooner or later, Zamperini will bend to fight the Bird’s fire with fire…
To the theological points I find stunningly wrapped inside the war film:
1) Louie Zamperini sits through a sermon that foreshadows ‘surviving the dark’ of his POW years, in a critical, cinematic, creative licensing way that specifically points to the fact that Jesus Christ (not some mamby-pamby higher power) is the Lord of both the day and the night.
2) Jolie intentionally inserts Zamperini’s discussion of prayer with Phil (Domhnall Gleason), asking about whether God talks back comes midstream to his mother’s prayers for him as a boy (St. Augustine would be proud!) and his own heavenward prayer in the raft that “if you help me survive this, I’ll dedicate my life to you.” The fruition of those thoughts doesn’t appear fleshed out in the movie, but is the final third of the Hillenbrand book “made for the screen?” I hardly think so, and yet we’re invited to check it out by the closing screen shots.
3) When Zamperini takes punch after punch from (I believe) one hundred and fifty-one prisoners, Jolie makes sure that we see that the other prisoner (the one the Bird beats to initiate this) is visibly juxtaposed. This is substitutionary atonement, Louie as Christ, captured perfectly.
4) When Zamperini is lifting the beam, the shadow cast from his body, slowly panned over, is specifically a cross in shape; while the other prisoners look on, prayerfully encouraging him to not give up, he is again doing what they cannot do – defeating the Bird not by fighting back physically but by refusing to give up. (The shadow of the bomber overhead also appears at times to play with the shadow of a cross…)
5) Where else is forgiveness that much of a factor? I’m an unapologetic fan of To End All Wars and The Power of One (the first is the non-fiction account of some POWs in another internment camp, the second is a fictional look at South Africa). Sure, Catch a Fire tried… but it seems that Jolie has set this whole forgiveness thing (which seems to be in great demand, no?) in the context of a sermon that a young boy preaches and then must live out.
I’m not saying it’s a great film. But in addition to other movies that I think challenge our lives in the here and now with issues from the past (I’m looking at you Selma, and you, American Sniper), Unbroken is a film that asks us to look at those who serve our country with honor, and to consider if a little forgiveness between you and me might change the world. Because if Louie can forgive the Bird… then you and I have plenty we should be able to forgive…