First things first: the reviews and social media claims arguing that director Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” somehow short shrifts the Christian faith or the Christianity of its subject are not just untrue, they are preposterous. This cinematic adaptation of the true story of Olympian and WWII Veteran Louis Zamperini has its flaws, but respect and reverence for the Zamperini’s Christian faith is not one of them. Quite the opposite.
Born in 1917, the late-Louis Zamperini (he died in July of this year aged 97) lived the kind of life that can only be true to be believed. A Depression-era child of Italian immigrants, Zamperini was headed for prison or worse when his older brother took a troubled sibling under wing and made an Olympic cross-country runner out of him. Zamperini competed in Berlin’s 1936 Olympics and in 1941 he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces. Soon he was a bombardier flying missions against Japanese positions in the Pacific. That career was cut short in May of 1943 when his bomber crashed into the ocean during a rescue operation.
Eleven died in the crash. Zamperini and two others survived and would be stranded at sea for 47 harrowing days before being picked up by the Japanese Navy (one man died during the ordeal). Zamperini would spend the rest of the war in Japanese prison-of-war camps being beaten, tortured, starved, and nearly worked to death.
Although the remaining 7 decades of his life are just as dramatic and moving, Zamperini’s Olympic and war years are what Jolie chooses to cover, and there is more than enough drama there to make for an inspiring and compelling motion picture.
***MILD SPOILERS COMING***
The performances and direction are first-rate. “Unbroken’s” surprise box office success has already guaranteed Jolie’s place in history as Hollywood’s first-ever A-list actress and A-list director. Her actual skills, though, more than match the hype — especially the action scenes, which are superbly staged and shot. Even though you know Zamperini survives, Jolie still creates suspense. That is no small achievement.
At 137 minutes, it is not that “Unbroken” is too long. The problem is that the prison camp sequences (the last 90 minutes or so) end up being an endurance test for the audience as well as Zamperini. He’s beaten, caged, beaten, worked to a frazzle, beaten, tortured, beaten, tormented, beaten, starved and beaten. With little else going on, the repetition wears over time. This section could’ve used some judicious editing and a meaty subplot.
Nevertheless, the film’s climax hits with an emotional wallop that lingers long after the movie ends. Much of this, despite what you might be reading or hearing elsewhere, is based on the fact that “Unbroken” is a deeply Christian film — not a spiritual film, not a religious film, a CHRISTIAN film.
***BIGGER SPOILERS AHEAD***
While it’s true that Zamperini did not fully embrace his faith until after the war — after post-traumatic stress and alcoholism almost killed him and his marriage — Jolie is quite consciously telling us the story of the experience that brought him to Christ. Zamperini himself is also presented as a Christ-like figure.
I don’t want to give everything away but it’s no accident Zamperini is singled out by the camp commandant to “pay for the sins” of all Americans. He’s also tempted by “Satan” to sell his soul with a single radio broadcast. Finally, he’s symbolically crucified (this is not subtle), symbolically raised from the dead, and symbolically baptized in water before God (in the form of the United States Army) appears in the sky and lifts him up into Heaven (returns him to America and reunites him with his family).
The fact that Zamperini’s eventual dedication to serve God is revealed in a written epilogue in no way detracts from the Christian power of “Unbroken.” If anything, those few words bring home the whole movie and what it wants to say about this man and his faith.
Throughout the story, Zamperini is surrounded by uncommonly decent people who openly practice the Christian faith. This includes his family and the crewmember (an obvious stand-in for John the Baptist — right down to the threat of a beheading) who survives the ordeal at sea with him. We see desperate men of faith make crucifixes and Rosaries from rope. The film opens with a priest speaking lovingly of Jesus Christ — words that set the film’s entire theme.
“Unbroken” is the second devoutly Christian WWII film to enjoy a wide studio release in 2014. The first was “Fury,” an even better movie starring Brad Pitt — Jolie’s husband. “Fury” and “Unbroken” are both artistic and commercial achievements thematically and financially rewarded by the exploration of Christian faith.
This is not a hard code to crack.
Jolie and Pitt admit they are not personally religious. They are, however, much more open-minded and tolerant than the bigoted morons behind “Noah” and “Exodus.” Between their undeniable talents and respect for others, their careers are now flourishing artistically and commercially in ways that no one would have imagined a decade ago.
For those disappointed “Unbroken” doesn’t cover the second half of Zamperini’s life, I have two words for you: Sequel, baby!
P.S. Did I mention that “Unbroken” is as patriotic as any of John Wayne’s WWII films?
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC