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Unspoken

Jack O’Connell as Louie Zamperini (Universal Pictures)

Universal Pictures

Jolie and O’Connell

Movies

Unspoken

Louis Zamperini biopic tells an amazing story but leaves out what he said was the most important part of his life

The best way to absorb the war epic Unbroken—a movie about the remarkable life of Olympian, World War II hero, and devoted Christian Louie Zamperini—is to know the whole story before watching the film.

Indeed, the opening moments of Unbroken—based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand—identify the movie as “a true story.” Perhaps a better description: “part of a true story.”

Hillenbrand masterfully captured the arc of Zamperini’s life in a book still topping The New York Times bestseller list four years after its debut. The story traces an Olympic runner from California who becomes a World War II hero: Zamperini survived a plane crash, 47 days on a raft in the shark-infested Pacific Ocean, and two years of brutal abuse in Japanese prison camps.

The film—directed by actress Angelina Jolie—faithfully depicts the first two acts of Zamperini’s life, as he experiences the glory of the Olympics and the horror of war. (The film earns a PG-13 rating for wartime violence, mild language, and brief nudity in a prison camp.)

Zamperini—powerfully portrayed by the relatively unknown actor Jack O’Connell—nearly breaks under the relentless torment of a brutal prison guard known as “The Bird.” The soldier courageously survives, and the movie ends with Zamperini reuniting with his family in California and offers a postscript about his life after the war.

But for Zamperini—who died in July at age 97—the movie ends where the most crucial part of his story begins. 

What happened next isn’t portrayed in the film: After returning from war, Zamperini spiraled into severe post-traumatic stress syndrome, and turned to alcohol for relief. He bitterly dreamed of returning to Japan to murder “The Bird.” 

In 1949, he reluctantly attended a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles with his wife. 

Hillenbrand found the sermon Graham preached that evening, and included the scene in her book. Graham preached: “Here tonight, there’s a drowning man, a drowning boy, a drowning girl that is lost out in the sea of life.” 

A stricken Zamperini returned the next night, and Graham again preached the gospel of salvation from sin through faith in Christ. Zamperini and his wife embraced the gospel.

His conversion transformed him. 

Zamperini turned from depression and alcohol to Christian faith and service. He forgave his captors, returned to Japan, and wrote a moving letter to “The Bird,” telling his tormenter: “I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian.”

The movie’s postscript says Zamperini credited his decision to serve God as saving his life, and that his faith motivated him to forgive his captors. But it doesn’t mention the Christian commitment Zamperini championed.

In a press conference after a screening in New York City, Jolie said she couldn’t include every part of Zamperini’s life in the film, and she rebuffed the suggestion she made his faith generic: “I don’t think it’s generic at all. I think it’s universal.” Jolie conceded the movie is “not specific to one faith” but said Zamperini “wanted the message to reach everyone.”

Zamperini did want the message of salvation in Christ to reach as many people as possible. (He told me that during an interview in 2011.) But while the gospel offer is universal, the gospel message is a call to faith in Christ alone for salvation.

During my interview with Zamperini in 2011, he said he was thrilled Hillenbrand included his Christian conversion in her account of his life: “There wouldn’t be a book without it.” And when he remembered the best day of his life, he didn’t mention his liberation from war. Instead, he said, “It was the day I came to Christ.”

It seems clear Jolie has a deep admiration and affection for Zamperini, and wanted to tell his story carefully. In many ways, she did. But by omitting his Christian faith, the filmmaker didn’t just miss one part of his life. She missed the real reason Zamperini was ultimately unbroken.

Comments

  • Richard Lewis
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:19 pm

    Having read the book, I saw the movie Christmas evening.  I had read some reviews and was disappointed to read that the story of Zamperini's conversion was omitted.  I almost didn't go for that reason ....  But now am pleased that I went, and I highly recommend the movie to you and all of my Christian friends.  Here is why:  This evening I was reading Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship and was almost stunned to read this statement:  "It is he [Christ] whom the disciple finds as he lifts up his cross."
     With that reading, I began to reflect on the movie as an allegory of the Christian life.  I know, I know, I doubt Jolie had that in mind, and the chronology of Zamperini's life and conversion must, in a certain sense, be inverted to illuminate the allegory, but the power of the (dramtically) central scene near the closing of the movie echoes the reality of Zamperini's life, post-conversion, as expressed in Bonhoeffer's words.  In a sweetly ironic twist, the (now, almost iconic to me) visual symbol of the movie in advertisements is ... well, that of the  disciple lifting his cross.So, yes, see the movie to strenghten your faith.  And don't hesitate to recommend it to those who need a witness to Christ's saving grace.  Then leave it up to the Lord to work in their hearts. 

  • Janet B
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:19 pm

    Sounds like someone needs to make a sequel...

  • Al Lindh's picture
    Al Lindh
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:19 pm

    It would be a good thing if a Christian movie maker would produce a sequel about the part of Zambornini's life that Jolie left out - the most important part.

  • tpsands
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:19 pm

    I've heard that the partial autobiography Devils at my Heels has more content concerning his conversion and life afterward. That came out in 2009.

  • erick's picture
    erick
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:19 pm

    I was hoping the true ending would be in the movie.  I am very disappointed.

  • Randall Dimmett
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:19 pm

    Yes, I agree:  if saving faith in Jesus Christ is left out of the story, it's missing the biggest event in Zamperini's life.  It may be a good story, but not a great one.

  • TK Wallace
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:19 pm

    "Unbroken" is one book you HAVE to read, so incredibly well written, and an incredible story. I like what Hilldebrand said after writing the book - she thought she had reached the pinnacle of her career in "Seabiscuit" - another incredible read by the way - but then she met Louis Zamperini!

  • LittleWomen
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:19 pm

    To be fair to Jolie, Jesus wasn't a part of his endurance in the prison camps.  (I know, I know, providence and all that, but Zamperini wanted nothing to do with Jesus then, and Jesus wasn't on his radar at all.)  Also, I don't know how the whole story could really have been made into one movie.  To make it fit into a decent length for one movie, she would have really had to diminish either the horror of war and the prison camp, or the horrible effects of the PTSD and alcoholism.  Either of which ruins the story.  I would love to see a sequel next year showing the last part, but I agree with her that it really is a second storyline and should be treated as such.

  • greentravelgal
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:19 pm

    I can only hope that movie viewers will be drawn to read the book.  Lauren Hillenbrand truly understood the power of Zamperini's transformation when he encountered Christ.  I wept through many portions of that book, and found it to be the most compelling salvation story I've read in print.  I suspected it might be whitewashed out of the movie - but really hoped to be proved wrong!

  • EarlyRiser54's picture
    EarlyRiser54
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:19 pm

    I plan to see the movie, as I expect it to thrillingly portray the first 2/3 of Zamperini's amazing story.  But I'm disappointed that Ms. Jolie has failed to include what Louis considered to be the most important part of his life story.  Having read his autobiography (Devil at My Heels) and Laura Hillenbrand's biography (Unbroken), I have no doubt about the object of Zamperini's faith, hope, and gratitude.

  • Fani's picture
    Fani
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:19 pm

    Dear Jamie,Thank you so much for writing this review! I have heard the movie advertised on radio, and thought I would take my (unbelieving) children to see it. Now, however, I will not. I think that if they see the movie they will think they know the whole story and may never pick up the book to read it.Jolie's insistence that she faithfully told the whole story is interesting. It demonstrates what I have often contemplated: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction" (Proverbs 1:7), and, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Proverbs 9:10). When a person does not fear God, her or his knowledge, wisdom, and understanding are severely limited. With this in mind, I have had a lot more patience with people who I might otherwise think are being disingenuous. In other words, Jolie might sincerely believe she has faithfully told Zamperini's story. She cannot understand that she hasn't.The decision to become a follower of Jesus is never simply about where a person spends eternity. Yes, that's a significant aspect (as well as the most long-lasting and permanent!) but it also affects every part of the follower's life right now, today. It goes beyond decisions about jobs, friendships, marriage, parenting--it affects our minds and how we think, and whether or not we are able to think clearly.I am going to add Angelina Jolie to my prayers. May God use her interest in Louis Zamperini's life to ignite a spark in her soul. May the Holy Spirit fan the spark into a burning desire to truly know God. May her life be transformed by the love of the King of the universe; may her dear children be taught in the paths of righteousness and love. Amen. In the Name of Jesus, amen.