(Universal Pictures video)

4 Stars — Profound

To tell the story of Louis Zamperini’s life in one film would be almost impossible. His mind-boggling transformation from a tough immigrant street kid to an Olympic star, a World War II airman stranded in the Pacific Ocean for three months on a raft, two years tortured as a prisoner in a Japanese camp, and a hellish post-war life that got changed at a Billy Graham Crusade, is nothing short of a miracle. Unbroken is a film that will change peoples’ lives.

Angelina Jolie brings to the screen Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken, in a chilling and dramatic re-enactment of his years between the 1936 Olympics and the end of the war in 1945. Viewers are taken through some of the brutalizing experiences that he endured, and sensitive viewers may find this hard to bear.

Unfortunately, the last remarkable part of Hillenbrand’s book about Zamperini’s redemption from post-traumatic stress and addiction into his transformation as a new Christian who sought to forgive his captors is shown in the film as a postscript scrolling across the credits at the end of the story. Universal Pictures, to its credit, has put together a short documentary of Zamperini that has also been released with the film to tell the rest of the story. This poignant conclusion to his life’s work accompanies this review.

Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) learned many lessons on the street, including how to deal with people who beat you up for being an immigrant. His older brother, his mother and father modeled a forgiving attitude toward his schoolyard bullies, a tolerance Zamperini treated with contempt. Later in his life, this modeling became part of what saved his life, both physically and spiritually.

During the months at sea, the eminent fear of death took a toll on the three airmen who managed to survive their crash in the Pacific . Zamperini relied heavily on the wisdom and memories of the daily lives of his parents to keep his spirits alive. It was here that he wrestled with God, pleading for help, acknowledging his having turned a blind eye on his faith, and tried to make sense of his circumstance. Like the old adage that there not any atheists in foxholes, Zamperini offered his complete life to God if he would save him from death.

Zamperini’s disintegration as a soldier in captivity is an experience that has been portrayed many times before. What is important to be gained from the making of this kind of film, though, is that it provides a history lesson about the level of brutality and man’s inhumanity to man that can, and has, taken place within the lifetime of those in the not-so-distance past. Every high school student should see this as a reminder that carrying hatred for others never leads to a satisfying peace.

We live in a world in which the media glorify the mentality that we should self-righteously seek retribution for the wrongs done to us or to our nation. Maybe it isn’t the post-apocalyptic exaggeration of a Mad Max movie, but it certainly shows up in everything from TV sitcom shows such as Two and a Half Men to political talk-show hosts. By contrast, Zamperini exemplified the Gospel message from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “God has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

It is worth noting that Zamperini died just six months ago, in July, at age 97. He got to see a private showing of his life’s story with Jolie just before he died. Three years ago, in 2011, he received an honorary doctorate degree from Azusa Pacific University.


» The cruelty of Zamperini’s prison guards is difficult to even imagine, let alone put on screen. How do you think you would have responded to such cruelty? Would you have forgiven and gone on to teach the joy of forgiveness as your life’s work?

» When Jolie chose this book as her third film as a director, she was drawn to both the story and the man. Why do you think she chose to focus on the struggle and not the victory of a joyful, forgiven life?

» In the short documentary that shows Zamperini’s family explaining what happened when he turned to God and was set free from this ongoing imprisonment by bitterness, vengeance and addiction, we begin to see how our humanity can rise above the inhumanity of war. Where have you seen this upfront in your own life?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.