Note: If you’ve seen the film’s advertisements, or are vaguely familiar with Louis Zamperini, nothing below should qualify as a spoiler. However, this review does discuss several of the film’s general plot points and themes, some of which should be considered light spoilers for anyone unfamiliar with the story.
This Christmas (which, by the way, is still ongoing), audiences have a variety of genres to choose from at their local cinema: From Peter Jackson’s fantasy epic The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, to the film adaptation of the beloved stage musical Into The Woods, to Clint Eastwood’s war-on-terror drama American Sniper.
But for Christians on the lookout for the ideal Christmas movie, the only real contender this season is Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling biography of the same name. The story concerns Louis Zamperini, an American Olympic runner and survivor of Japan’s infamous POW camps in WWII. The film explores Zamperini’s early life via flashback, treating us to scenes from his early childhood as an Italian-American in an unwelcoming neighborhood, and then examining his athletic journey: first as a high-school track star, and finally as a contender at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (Though the scene doesn’t appear in the film, Zamperini’s fast finish apparently attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler, who insisted on congratulating him in person).
The bulk of the film, however, is concerned with Zamperini’s harrowing experiences in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War. After a sudden engine failure, Zamperini lived through his B-24 bomber’s crash landing in the ocean, and subsequently defied all odds by surviving for 47 days adrift at sea on a life raft. When rescue finally came, it was from an enemy Japanese ship, leading soon thereafter to the airman’s imprisonment under the harshest of circumstances.
The film is not without its faults. While critics and audiences have generally given Jolie high marks for her work, some have voiced dissatisfaction with what they perceive as shallow characterizations. Zamperini, they argue, is not “fleshed out” so much as he is made into a generic protagonist, not unlike a secular Jesus for the WWII equivalent of a Passion narrative. The same can be said of “The Bird” (portrayed by Miyavi), a notorious prison guard who took a special interest in tormenting his star prisoner, and whose human complexity is mostly lost in the translation from book to film.
But to the average moviegoer, these analyses will mean very little. Zamperini’s character may come off as a generic protagonist, but I would argue instead that Jolie purposefully shapes him into an American everyman, someone with whom the entire audience can relate in the broadest of terms. Admittedly, Jolie’s narrative does not exhibit the depth of character that readers were treated to in Hillenbrand’s book, but it is an open question whether the film would have worked as well had the director attempted such. Indeed, if the entire book – with all of its fascinating details and Zamperini’s inner thoughts – were included, Jolie would have been forced to forego a theatrical release in favor of a TV miniseries (not a terrible idea in and of itself, but one that may have limited her audience).
It would also seem that critics who point out the film’s Passion-like undertones are on to something, but to call it a “secular passion narrative” actually understates its underlying themes. Unbroken is an unashamedly Christian film, and one of very few war movies in recent memory that can be counted as such. The numerous visual and dialogical Christian references are well executed from a technical standpoint, but are also particularly timely in light of current events. While Jolie wisely holds back from depicting the fullness of their brutality, Imperial Japan’s handling of prisoners in WWII is sadly comparable to the treatment that Christians receive today in many troubled regions around the world. The mainstream media has mostly failed to report on the global phenomenon of Christian persecution, but when the story does find its way into the news, the details are sobering.
It’s easy for those of us who grew up in the 1990s to perceive this barbarity as something entirely new in human history, a sign of a coming “new dark age” for mankind. The harsh reality, of course, is that for many, times are dire. But films like Unbroken can do much to stave off the temptation to despair by reminding us that there is nothing new under the sun, and that we must never cease in working and praying for a future peace.
And how does Unbroken propose that we achieve this peace? Not through arms alone, but also through the forgiveness of Christ – a message that the world sorely needs to hear. Even forgetting the plight of Christians (but pray we do not), 2014 has not lacked for news reports about hideous acts inflicted upon innocent people by terror groups and iron-fisted dictators (or oppressive oligarchies, as in China). Just as in WWII, the command that we love our enemies can at times seem absurd, even impossible. But it is precisely in such times as these that what we need – as Americans, as Christians, and as human beings – are stories that take a sobering look at the realities of life in a fallen world, but which nevertheless inspire us to respond to our enemies with love and forgiveness.
Is Oscar buzz for Jolie premature? Perhaps. But even if the film isn’t perfect from a technical standpoint, its problems aren’t so significant that they will bother a majority of the audience. Unless you have a high tolerance for a 3-hour-plus CGI-fest (I’m looking at you, Hobbit), you’ll find no better way to spend your money at the movies this week than by seeing Unbroken.
Unbroken is rated PG-13 for war violence, including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language.