Unbroken is as Christian a story as secular Hollywood can bear to tell without letting Jesus get in the way of a hymn to the human spirit.
The directorial debut of cinematic star Angelina Jolie, Unbroken retells the incredibly true story of Olympic athlete Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini. Though its Coen brothers script bears all the hallmarks of a ‘triumph of the spirit’ tale, this is a story whose soul resides in the Bible.
The film opens with a young Louie in church, barely concentrating as the minister challenges his congregation to acknowledge a world full of light and dark, and love people all the same: “[God] sent His son Jesus not to make war on sin. Not to do battle, but to love the sinner. Love thine enemy.”
The words sound prosaic in the stuffy interior of Louie’s Californian church, but as his story unfolds, the need for forgiveness comes to represent the challenge that will shape his life.
At his brother’s urging Zamperini abandons a life of delinquency in order to take up track running. His commitment to his newfound passion takes him all the way to the 1936 Olympics, establishing him as a man who lives by the creed, “If you can take it, you can make it.” However this is not the philosophy will truly help him survive World War 2.
As the bombadier of a B-24 Liberator, Zamperini preserves a healthy respect for his own abilities and a disdain for the God who seems to have no role in his life. However after a nearly fatal crash landing he finds his pilot friend Phil praying on the edge of the beach.
Louie: Now you pray?
Phil: (Smiles) I was busy before.
Louie: My mother does that.
Phil: A lot of people do this.
Louie: [Teasing] Does he answer back?
Phil: Yes. He says my bombadier is an idiot.
Shortly after Zamperini and fellow crewmembers are called upon to survive 47 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Starvation, storms, marauding sharks and the machine guns of Japanese aircraft lead Louie to the point of despair, and there he makes a deal with God:
“If you get me through this I swear I’ll dedicate my whole life to you. I’ll do whatever you want. Please…”
Louie does survive, but not in the way he might have hoped. He is taken prisoner by the Japanese and transferred to a barbaric POW facility on the outskirts of Tokyo where he becomes the target of the brutal camp commander. Through a combination of unflinching conviction and strength of will he resists despair, and Unbroken moves to its conclusive celebration of the human spirit. It’s stirring, challenging stuff … but the story would have been more of both if it had continued to its real conclusion.
Beyond the end of the film Zamperini returns home and, though he marries, continues to suffer from the horrors of war. In contrast to the film’s title Louie is a shattered, angry man who lashes out at those around him. However his wife Cynthia becomes a born-again Christian and challenges him to accompany her to a Billy Graham crusade. There he discovers the God he has been hiding from since his life raft bargain. In receiving forgiveness he finally finds himself able to extend it to others. His nightmares cease and Zamperini is set free to serve. Later Louie would reflect on this, not the Olympics or his wartime record, as the highlight of his life,
“The moment was more than remarkable; it was the most realistic experience I’d ever had. I’m not sure what I expected; perhaps my life or my sins or a great white light would flash before my eyes; perhaps I’d feel a shock like being hit by a bolt of lightning. Instead, I felt no tremendous sensation, just a weightlessness and an enveloping calm that let me know that Christ had come into my heart.”
Unbroken mentions that Zamperini later travelled to Tokyo to meet and forgive his former prison guards. What it doesn’t say is that he did so through the power of what God had done for him, leading several to Christ. Sadly, without introducing us to his saviour, this triumph just becomes more fuel for Unbroken’s humanistic fervour. It’s also ultimately unhelpful because if Louis Zamperini’s life teaches us anything it’s that it takes more than Olympian strength to move from life’s darkest places to the freedom he found. Sadly, anyone who attempts to repeat his journey on their own is likely to find themselves all at sea.