I need to start by acknowledging that Louie Zamperini—the man whose story is told in Laura Hillenbrand's runaway bestselling biography Unbroken and now in the film by the same name—is incredibly inspiring: first, for his sheer grit, the likes of which I could never hope to exhibit; and second, for his brave example of true belief and courage in forgiving his captors.
I mean that.
Also, if you're taking your family to the movies this Christmas, Unbroken is probably a solid choice. Pretty much everyone will like it (though not little kids—see the content warning below). It's the story of an immigrant kid who overcomes his misbehaving childhood to become an Olympic athlete, then a WWII bombardier. He survives being shot down over the Pacific and spending 47 days in a raft—47 days in a raft—only to be picked up by the Japanese, imprisoned, tortured, made the special personal target of a sadistic commander in a Japanese concentration camp, and beaten senseless over and over.
This is basically the perfect storm of inspirational movie tropes, and the kicker is that it's all true. And if you've read the book (I haven't, but I consulted many who had before I wrote this review), you know that the most amazing part of Zamperini's story is he attended a Billy Graham crusade and became a Christian, which prompted him to personally forgive his captors.
But I have problems with Unbroken, the film. They are problems that I think are worth audiences considering—especially Christian audiences. So please keep all that in mind as you read on.
The first problem with Unbroken (to my mind, the lesser problem) is that it does fall curiously flat, considering its source material. It's not bad. Jack O'Connell, who plays Zamperini and has been on my radar since the phenomenal 2006 film This Is England, is terribly likable in the role; Domnhall Gleeson is wonderful as his military buddy who also happens to be the kind of Christian who prays, cracks good jokes, and talks frankly about what his faith means—in other words, the utterly non-crazy sort of Christian most of us want to be, or want to have for a friend.
The creative talent behind this film is formidable. Angelina Jolie directed it—and talked a lot about how her encounters with the real Zamperini changed her. It was shot by the eminent Roger Deakins (Skyfall, True Grit, Revolutionary Road, No Country for Old Men) and scored by the great Alexandre Desplat (Godzilla, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Philomena). And there are four screenplay credits of almost preposterous heft: William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Miserables); Richard LaGravanese (Behind the Candelabra, The Bridges of Madison County)—and most confusingly, Joel and Ethan Coen.
Yet Unbroken feels a little like a studio movie calculated to appeal to the widest number of audience members, which is exactly what it is, except that the talent behind it are just a little too idiosyncratic for most conventional studio films. Normally I wouldn't complain about this, because any film that introduces a wide audience of more casual moviegoers to some great cinematic talent is a good thing.
But this seems like a case of too many cooks, or maybe, more accurately, of what might happen if you got a lot of musicians with great, distinctive styles in one room and asked them to make something together: all the edges get blunted, and the result is underwhelming, a little too paint-by-numbers.
Then again, worse movies come out every year. Worse movies come out every week. And though I was confused while watching it about why it wasn't more amazing, I wasn't upset when I left. It was, in a phrase, definitely an okay movie.
But, here's the thing: this movie is being actively marketed to the faith-based market. As is common now around “inspirational” movies suitable for faith-based audiences, marketers are working overtime to encourage ministry leaders to buy blocks of tickets and to participate in the film by submitting their own stories of strength and resilience and to “live their lives unbroken.” (A curious choice of words for an audience that is meant to believe that all of us are broken beyond repair, and that we can't fix ourselves, but that's sort of beside my point.)
The film's tagline—I just went and double-checked this—is “Survival. Resilience. Redemption.” The survival piece is obvious, if a bit of a spoiler. Resilience, it has in spades.
But what about the redemption?
Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote about some of the expected Christian backlash around the fact that the film takes the final section of the book—which recounts Zamperini's conversion and move to forgive his captors—and instead of dramatizing it, writes about it in a lengthy, respectful series of the sorts of title cards you typically see at the end of a “true story” film.
I'll confess that I rolled my eyes a little bit when I first read about the expected controversy, because one of the most common criticisms leveled against biopics of any sort is that they left something out—and the thing about making a feature film out of any book-length work is that you have to pick and choose what works best on screen, what makes for a nicely-crafted story arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Plus, it is my experience that some Christian moviegoers tend to assume that any omission or alteration of explicit faith material is enacted as a kind of calculated aggression against them and their faith, rather than for various other reasons—craft, marketability, storytelling, simple lack of knowledge, or whatever. And Unbroken displays no anti-faith bias.
But now that I've seen it, I agree: the film still suffers from this omission.
It's being billed as an “inspirational” film, but the most important scene—the image that's being used on movie posters—crystallizes what gets Zamperini through his ordeal. It isn't faith—that comes later. Rather, it's a sort of grit-your-teeth endurance borne out of hatred for your enemy. It comes from being so determined to master your enemy that you manage to perform great feats of will and strength and outlast him. This is made explicit in comments from one of the film's characters, and it goes unchallenged throughout the film.
On top of that, when it comes to this story, the game is rigged: the title is Unbroken, the story is widely known, and plus, we know who wins this war. So the whole time you're rooting for the character, and the country, while knowing he'll win in the end and his captors will be disgraced, and it's hard to suppress schadenfreude-by-proxy when the unmitigatedly bad guy comes to a bad end and is disgraced.
So what I fear is that audiences will watch the film and walk away saying to one another, “Wasn't that inspiring?”—without asking, what did it inspire you to?
The story of resilience and outlasting and will and determination is scored and shot, acted and directed and sometimes visually striking, and what it inspires you to do is hate your enemies so hard that you can prove you're better by them by making it past the finish line. Again, the image used in much of the marketing (including what's currently a banner ad on IMDb) is drawn from a scene that specifically illustrates this.
Sometimes I get the uneasy feeling that this is how we Christians conceive of what Jesus inspires us to do, which is to suffer and die, only to be resurrected on the third day and yell a cosmic Ha, you lose at the forces of evil. Instead of things like do what is crazy, pick up your cross, sacrifice for others, consider others better than yourself, give, give, give and love with no expectation of return.
Sometimes the swagger in our voices when we talk about the gospel, or talk about "those people" and how they are plotting our ruin, sounds less about sacrifice and letting go of what we think we deserve, and more about winning the game and proving we're the best.
Here is what Jesus said that actually changed Zamperini's life and inspired him, as translated by Eugene Peterson:
Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: “Don’t hit back at all.” If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
You’re familiar with the old written law, “Love your friend,” and its unwritten companion, “Hate your enemy.” I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
The titles that run after the visual story ends contradict the impression given by most of the movie's two-hour runtime—but text, I fear, cannot stand up to the lushly shot, orchestrally scored images. So what is actually most inspiring about Zamperini's story—not that he won through the force of his own will, but that he then turned around and reciprocated with love—should happen in the third act. But what sticks with you is the images.
(In this area I disagree with Zamperini's son Luke, who reads the film differently. I respect his take, but suspect being so close to the story may change the way he watches it.)
So in the end, I'm mostly frustrated that once again a movie is getting marketed at Christians, and will make a ton of money from them, that is probably going to be an exercise in missing the point. And my point here is not that “the Christian part” was removed because of some kind of rumored bias against it (it is not), but that it hollowed out the revolutionary story and left a much more boring inspiration in its place, some more about the indomitable human spirit and so on, which we've seen before.
Here is what I'd suggest: If you want to, go see Unbroken. Be inspired. Zamperini was an incredible man. But when you leave, talk to the people you went to the movie with. Talk about what it inspired you to do. Let that be what Zamperini's life (and Jesus' words) are really about: not winning, not defiance, not coming out on top at the end of the day, but the humble revolution of living generously and loving your enemies, especially when nobody notices and it makes no sense.
Our world, and our churches, could use a lot more of that right now.
So obviously, if you know the plot, you're aware that this is probably not a great film for children, owing to the torture and the internment camps and the starvation and pain. But for a film with all those elements, it was clearly created in such a way that most audiences, even sensitive ones, could watch it. Somehow you get the sense of the great physical violence inflicted on Zamperini without seeing most of it happen; the film leans on the aftereffects. You get lots of wounds and bruises and scabs and scars without seeing them happen, though you'll flinch from anticipation. Also, a lot of the film happens in a concentration camp, and with a truly sadistic commander causing the harm, which is not pleasant at all.
Other things to note: as a child, Zamperini was kind of a bad seed, so we get a few scenes of a kid drinking alcohol and smoking and getting in fights. We also see him try to peek up women's skirts from underneath bleacher seating (he doesn't really succeed, and we see nothing). Soldiers speak in very general ways about subjects soldiers often talk about, like women, but nothing graphic. There are a handful of profanities—enough to keep the story realistic—but not nearly as many as most war movies. While surviving on the raft, characters have to both eat raw fish (kinda gross) and battle actual sharks. And in one scene, two POWs, who are skinny and dirty after mind-altering days in confinement, are forced to strip down entirely and stand before their captors. One shot from afar therefore shows rear male nudity, but in the absolute least sexual of ways.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She writes the “Watch This Way” blog and tweets @alissamarie.