TCC Films: Unbroken

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Angelina Jolie and Zamperini

Angelina Jolie has scored what many might see as a feminist victory: She has a made a movie just like a man. “Unbroken,” based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand and the inspiring true story of WWII airman, Louis Zamperini, comes off in Jolie’s version as war porn. Gone is the story of how he became an Olympic-class runner (not because he needed to avoid jail, so much as he just fell in love with running and was good at it) and gone are the glimpses of hope and humor in the wretched Japanese prisoner-of-war camps where he spent years after his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean. In Jolie’s version, there is no hope, just as there are no decent guards. There are only the beatings and whippings and punchings, the executions (both slow and fast) orchestrated by the cruel camp commandant, nicknamed “The Bird.”

In Christ, Zamperini is able to travel to Japan, not to hunt and kill, but to seek out his captors and forgive them.

That there was a war criminal that tortured Zamperini is true, but Jolie makes their relationship the only truth for much of the movie. It’s the Zamp and the Bird at war; the rest of the characters are bit players in this gore fest that finally leaves the viewer feeling soiled and weary and complicit in the violence. (And, and this part is unsettling, a little bored. I kept wandering off and thinking about doing an actual woman’s “Unbroken.” It involves a mother with five kids — perhaps one whose husband is deployed in Iraq — in a drafty, two-bedroom apartment during a blizzard, with not much in the cupboard, a car with a dead battery and no one to help her when two of the kids get strep throat and the other three come down with a stomach virus.)

But most disappointing is the cursory way Jolie handles the aftermath of the war. We see Zamperini make a promise to serve God if his life is spared during a storm at sea. What we don’t see is the terrible way he must go to keep his promise. He comes home scarred and bitter. He begins drinking heavily and makes plans to return to Japan and to hunt down and kill his tormentor. (All we get is an onscreen postscript about post-traumatic stress disorder. How sanitary it sounds.) In fact, Zamperini’s life is a mess until his wife drags him to a Billy Graham crusade, where it and he are forever changed. Zamperini doesn’t just decide, as Jolie has it in another onscreen postscript, to choose forgiveness over revenge (a decision that leaves the moviegoer wondering both how any human could do so, and, further, why. The movie made me want to hurt The Bird, and I was sitting in a plush seat in the Cineplex drinking bottled water).

Unbroken Book

In Jolie’s telling, one is left to wonder if Zamperini isn’t really Superman, or maybe the greatest stoic who ever walked the earth. But the real story, while it is certainly about his grit and courage and character, is about something more. And it’s this crucial “more” which Jolie ignores. The great change in Louis Zamperini’s life comes because he has an encounter with Christ. Christ raises Zamperini from the death of his anger and grief and bloodlust and into new life. In Christ, Zamperini is able to travel to Japan, not to hunt and kill, but to seek out his captors and forgive them. (The Bird alone refused to meet with him). My guess is Billy Graham can only be used as a punch line in a Hollywood blockbuster and Christ is only good for atmospherics (cue the crucifix and the stained glass windows) in mob sagas and immigrant coming-of-age tales. But this is Zamperini’s story, not Jolie’s, and he knows who set him free.

If you want to know Louis Zamperini’s story, skip the movie and read the book.