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Those who’ve read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken or who’ve read an interview with POW, Olympic runner, and Christian evangelist Louis Zamperini know what a hilarious, honest-to-a-fault character he was before his death in 2014. His description in an interview with the Amateur Athletic Foundation of the Jonah-like reaction he had when he realized God was calling him to return to Japan to evangelize some of the very men who had brutalized him perfectly captured his unique candor: “All the way over the Pacific Ocean, I was resentful, even when I arrived in Japan. This was God’s will, and I knew it. God doesn’t say we have to be happy in His will. He just says that we should be obedient to His will and joy will follow. So I was being obedient.”
He then went on to describe how his emotions got the better of him once he took the podium at Sugamo Prison, so that he only talked about how horribly the war criminals there had treated him and sat down, entirely forgetting to deliver his gospel message until someone reminded him to.
While this particular situation was specific to Zamperini, the jumbled mix of emotions he experienced will be familiar to anyone who’s been a Christian long—knowing God’s will, even acquiescing to God’s will, yet still resisting it emotionally. Sadly, nothing so funny, messy, or relatable makes its way into Unbroken: Path to Redemption, a sort of sequel to the Angelina Jolie–directed 2014 film. Instead we see a saintly Zamperini, godly expression firmly in place, arrive to proclaim blessings of salvation on a crowd of unanimously grateful Japanese men. Not surprisingly, we experience almost no emotion at the sight.
The film continues in this vein throughout, giving us mild, generic sinners who become mild, generic saved. Zamperini’s real struggles weren’t so tame however. Along with reveling in the party lifestyle afforded by his fame, his violent PTSD dreams tormented him to such a degree he once woke to find himself strangling his pregnant wife. In the film, he only flashes on such an image then wakes to find his wife snoring peacefully beside him. Why pull the punch of the horror the Zamperinis actually lived?
It’s as if the film doesn’t trust the audience to identify with the real man or his real salvation experience and so softens him in some places and ridiculously overdramatizes him in others until he feels like no particular person, just another stock Christian character.
In the film, a tormented Zamperini stumbles from Billy Graham’s revival tent with the phantasm of a cackling, clownish Japanese guard looming in his blurred, teary vision. Dramatic, I guess. But it hardly feels authentic, especially given the simple, straightforward thoughts Zamperini said he was actually having in that moment: “I began to think about it as I started out of that tent … even if I went forward and made the commitment of my faith in Christ, I knew I couldn’t live a Christian life. So this would make me a big hypocrite.” Once he professed faith, he explained, “it was the most realistic thing that ever happened to me; not because there was any sort of emotional experience, I did not have that. … I took [God] at His word and I believed.”
Most disappointing of all, however, is how Path to Redemption deals with the great villain of Zamperini’s life, a sadistic guard known as the Bird. After the war, the Bird was never charged with his crimes and went on to have a successful sales career. Zamperini asked to meet with him. The Bird refused and was unrepentant, insisting, until he eventually died a wealthy man, that he’d done nothing wrong. The wicked appeared to prosper. Justice did not appear to be done. There was only Zamperini’s determination to obey God and forgive the Bird and his faith that God would set matters right in His time. Unbroken: Path to Redemption doesn’t mention any of it. It’s too busy with easy Hollywood endings that don’t fit in neatly with real faith or real life.