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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.