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Lindsay Pulsipher
Freestyle Releasing

Movies

Mixed message

Redemption and romance compete for the plot in God Bless the Broken Road

Precisely half the audience at the opening night showing of God Bless the Broken Road that I attended seemed to enjoy the new faith film. The other patron laughed and gasped throughout, while I groaned in silence.

Sure, melodramatic plot devices are a matter of taste. Here’s one of many; gauge it for yourself: Late in the film, Amber (Lindsay Pulsipher), whose husband died in Afghanistan, is feeling hopeless and angry with God. The bank has issued its final foreclosure warning, and her fourth-grade daughter has run away. That’s when a wheelchair-bound veteran approaches her. He strains to push himself out of his seat, stands (inexplicably), salutes her, and explains the necklace he’s wearing. Her husband, who had saved his life, in his dying moments gave him the small crucifix that he had “made from the shrapnel of our first firefight.” (The PG film has some brief, bloodless combat action.)

Secular critics are saying, “Too much message.” The real issue, though, is the film’s mixed message. From its opening minutes, the film fixates on Amber’s potential love interest, hunky but struggling NASCAR driver Cody Jackson (Andrew Walker). A second chance at romance and the redemption of an abandoned faith lie at the end of the road Amber travels. The film prizes both destinations equally, trivializing the gospel.

Viewers might perceive twists on well-known stories. Ruth: Amber must cope with her interfering single mother-in-law. Job: Amber’s bubbly girlfriends give only rosy feedback no matter how bad things get. And Cars: Cody has been sent to the “minor leagues” in Amber’s hometown to work with racing “guru” Joe (Gary Grubbs) because he has been taking racetrack turns too fast—Lightning McQueen’s failing.

Joe shares some words of wisdom with Cody: “What you need to learn is when to go fast and when to go slow.” And Amber walks in.

Silent groan.

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Universal 1440 Entertainment

Merritt Patterson and Samuel Hunt
Universal 1440 Entertainment

Movies

Not Louie’s story

Biopic misses the funny, messy, relatable Zamperini

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.

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Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The Swampers at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in ‘Muscle Shoals’
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Movies

Town with a sound

Muscle Shoals revisits one of Aretha Franklin’s—and the music world’s—biggest influences

With all the tributes being paid to Aretha Franklin and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ed King in the wake of their deaths, it’s a good time to take a look at Muscle Shoals, an excellent 2013 documentary that explores the small town that helped both the Queen of Soul and the Southern rocker find their sound.

Talking about Muscle Shoals, Ala., Bono says, “That sound made it through to Ireland and to Britain and we felt the blood in that. We felt the sort of pulse of it and we wanted some, you know.” And, of course, Franklin and King were just two of the many, many singers and bands who benefited from the influence of the local songwriters, producers, and session musicians whose style became synonymous with that region. 

Though Franklin’s vocal talent was undeniable in her early years with Columbia Records, she’d been musically miscast and had failed after nine studio albums to achieve commercial success. It wasn’t until she worked with Muscle Shoals’ soon-to-be legendary producer Rick Hall in his soon-to-be famous run-down studio that Franklin finally broke through. 

The recording session was short and contentious, but it resulted in Franklin’s first bona fide hit—“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”—and ultimately what is widely recognized as her most accomplished album that included songs “Respect” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” The rest is R&B history.

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