As a born again Christian, a World War Two buff, and a huge fan of Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same title, I haven’t been more excited about a movie release in quite some time. I would likely be the bullseye at the center of Angelina Jolie’s target audience for her movie version of Unbroken, the adaptation of the bestselling biography f Louis Zamperini. What could go wrong, I thought, it is too good of a story to mess up completely. As expected, I did enjoy the movie and found it to be excellently, at times almost beautifully done. Yet, even though I enjoyed the movie, I just can’t shake my ultimate disappointment in the opportunity lost. What could have been an epic timeless classic was just a good movie enjoyed mostly by history lovers that will be forgotten a few years after it leaves the theaters.
Unbroken tells the story of Louie Zamperini, one of the forgotten heroes of the Greatest Generation. It follows his early life as he initially goes from being the troubled son of Italian immigrants in California to running in the last Olympics held in Berlin just before the outbreak of World War Two. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the movie tracks Zamperini as he enters into the war and initially in his role as a bombadier on a B-24 in the Pacific Theater. After a harrowing attack on a Japanese held island results in their plane being badly damaged, Zamperini’s crew is tasked with searching for a missing plane in a second B-24 that is generally held to be unreliable and has been scavenged for parts by the air wing. Not surprisingly, the plane suffers mechanical failure and crashes in the Pacific with only Zamperini, his pilot and another crew member surviving but set adrift in the vast and unforgiving ocean.
Over the course of the next fifty plus days, the three face all of the challenges one would expect in such circumstances along with some decidedly unexpected, aggressive sharks and strafing Japanese planes, before being captured. This segment of the film was exceptionally well done and really brought home the enormity of the challenges faced by the combatants of the Pacific Theater of World War Two. The harsh struggle of the flyers to stay alive while drifting on the beautiful ocean under an endless blue sky was both chilling and beautiful to behold.
Following their capture by the Japanese, Zamperini is taken to one of the unbelievably brutal prison camps maintained by the Japanese during the war. Zamperini upon arrival catches the eye of a sadistic guard nicknamed The Bird and he is singled out for his cruel attentions. The Bird takes delight in tormenting Zamperini relentlessly, both physically and mentally and Zamperini barely makes it to the end of the War. Takamasa Ishihara does a wonderful job playing the Bird as creepy, sadistic and a touch mad.
While the general sense of the toil and struggle of the prisoners is conveyed, the movie is a bit sterile in its depiction of Zamperini’s time in captivity. The actual torment underwent by Zamperini and all allied prisoners of the Japanese during World War Two is the stuff of nightmares and likely could not be accurately shown in PG-13 movie. For those unfamiliar, the Nazi prison camps were actually tame compared to what the Japanese did to the Allied prisoners. If you ever want to see the deepest part of the darkness of the human heart without God research Unit 731 of the Japanese Army for example. Unbroken does accurately show a glimpse into the daily struggle of the Allied soldiers and sailors to survive under the weight of the inhumanity of the Japanese.
The conclusion of the movie though is where the story telling really fails to deliver. While Unbroken tells an interesting story up until the end of the war, it is just not a great World War II prison camp movie or not a great lost at sea movie or a great running movie. These portions of the movie seem to be the early acts of the drama, put in place to set up for the climactic finale – the ultimate message of redemption and salvation through Christ that Louie Zamperini experienced and shared thousands of times in his lifetime. Unfortunately, the makers instead chose to paint the prison camp experience as almost solely a triumph of the will type experience, where the determination of Zamperini allows him to finish the war severely beaten but unbroken by his experience.
While Zamperini’s will was certainly amazing, this choice is not true to the actual history and causes the movie to end on a flat note. According to the movie, the war is over and the characters have paid a huge price for a victory that is never really depicted. The Bird escapes punishment and Louie just goes back to life and later does good Christian things.
In reality, Louie Zamperini ends the war completely broken by the experience and spends the next few years with flashbacks, nightmares and all of the hallmarks of PTSD which he self medicates with alcohol. He is lost, alcoholic, about to be divorced from his wife and filled with rage at his former captors when God steps in. His wife convinces him to attend a Billy Graham Crusade and it is only there through the miracle of new life through Christ that everything changes. He was completely broken, lost at sea and a prisoner of sin when Jesus saves him and changes everything through His redemption and His salvation. It is this ending that makes Zamperini’s story so unique and so compelling and to choose to avoid it is to remove the true climax of the story. What could have been a fantastic culmination of all that was building up in the movie just petered out.
Unbroken is a good movie that could have been a great movie. My advice, read the book. In this case, it is just so much better.