A Review of Unbroken by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Four Reels
Unbroken is the amazing story of WWII hero Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) – a tale of courage, patriotism, and strength under great adversity, reminding today’s American why he and his comrades are known as the Greatest Generation. It is also a missed opportunity; although director Angelia Jolie admires Louie’s tenacity and doesn’t ignore his religious faith, she can’t quite admit that it was God, not his own self-determination, which supported Louie in his trials. Hopefully, this film will drive people to look more deeply at the real man and the One who inspired Him.
Oscar Wilde mused that “every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.” This is certainly true of young Zamperini. Horribly bullied for his Italian heritage and bored by church, Louis fights, lusts after woman, steals from neighbors, and drinks straight whiskey – all before his teens. Finally, his older brother, recognizing Louie’s athletic ability, encourages him to fight on the track field rather than parking lots. Soon Louie is an All-American and travels to Germany for the 1936 Olympics. Yet this is just child’s play for what God has in store. During the War, Louie finds himself lost at sea, surviving on rainwater, albatross, and memories of his mother’s cooking. During a private moment, he looks at the night sky full of stars and whispers, “God, if you get me through this, I promise I will dedicate my whole life to you.” God answers the request in the strangest way possible. After forty-seven days, the emaciated Louie is rescued – by the Japanese navy. He is immediately placed in a POW camp where he is tortured daily by the young, frustrated warden known as the Bird (rock singer Miyavi), who would admit later in life that he “derived sexual pleasure” from beating prisoners.
These prison scenes are eerily similar to Christ’s own passion narrative. The Bird hisses and taunts Louie like Satan in the Desert. When he discovers that his favorite prisoner was once ran in Berlin, he makes the razor thin Louie race another prison guard, then pounds him with a rod when he loses. “Who is the Olympic athlete,” he muses. Yet Louie remains unfazed and refuses to strike back. When offered the chance to move to a nicer facility if he accepts anti-American propaganda, Louie politely declines. Finally, the Bird has had enough. He forces Louie to raise a heavy wooden plank over his head for several hours. “If he drops it,” he tells another guard, “shoot him.” As the shadows progress and extend over the ground, it’s impossible to not think of Jesus on the Cross. Just when it seems he is about to falter, Louie musters his strength and cries out, extending the plank high above his head. All the prisoners’ eyes are fixed with hope on him, and the Bird realizes in fury that his plan has failed.
During his unfortunate stay, Louie spends his precious free time contemplating the few small pictures of family. Once he found his family annoying or even repressive; now they are his source of comfort. When the War comes to an end, he discovers the small cell where the Bird quartered. Tucked in a corner is a picture of the Bird as a young child, smiling with his father, also in military uniform. This is just a taste of Louie’s post-War experience which Unbroken frustratingly declines to show beyond a few minutes. Louis suffers from PTSD, becoming an alcoholic, then giving his life over to Christ. He would eventually return to Japan and personally forgive his captors, although the Bird does not show up. Louie recognizes that he is a sinner too and cannot judge this other man who gave him so much pain.
Unbroken was promoted as a “testament to endurance” with the hastag #IAmUnbroken to encourage viewers to tweet their own “inspirational story of resilience.” Here is a man who believed in himself and pulled through. “If you can take it, you can make it,” Louie’s brother tells him. Despite the marketing, Louie seems to feel, if not completely understated, that there is a greater force at work than simply his own might. He recalls it this way in memoirs:
“I made thousands of promises on the raft and in prison camp. [God] kept His promises, but I didn't keep mine. So I went back to the prayer room and made a confession of faith in Christ. While I was still on my knees, I knew my whole life had changed. I knew that I was through getting drunk—that I'd forgiven all my guards, including the Bird.”
Jolie, like secular society, is not anti-religious. Rather, religion is simply “experiential,” not “ontological.” It’s a nice cultural attribute, not part of one’s essence. But for Louie, God isn’t a social construct; He is the source of His strength. He knows that “through Christ [we] can endure all things.” Jolie is an honest enough artist that much of Louie’s faith comes out but holds back the reigns to meet a secular palate. Unbroken, even if watered down, is still a beautiful film and worth seeing. It’s one of the best of last year, but it could have been one of the best of all time.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on January 27th, 2014.