Unbroken: The Challenge of Biography

Unbroken posterBy all rights, I should be thrilled that Unbroken, the biopic about Olympic athlete-turned-WWII POW Louie Zamperini, is coming to theatres this week. I always celebrate turning in my grades by going to the movies, and this one has been on my radar ever since I read Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable book about Zamperini during my trip to California earlier this year.

But as the release gets closer, my enthusiasm gets smaller.

While Unbroken has all the hallmarks of a year-end Oscar contender — plus the added wrinkle of the director being a more famous actor than anyone in her cast, the advance notices have been middling. I’m sure more reviews are on their way, but with forty-five in, Unbroken‘s rating on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator is below 50%. Claudia Puig’s review for USA Today is telling: while it’s positive enough to count as a “fresh” in the RT system, she concludes that “Zamperini’s exceptional tale of bravery and resilience should be more heart-wrenching and less Hallmark-flavored. Instead, his biography comes across as a conventionally episodic series of ordeals.” Likewise, Chris Nashawaty in Entertainment Weekly finds Angelina Jolie’s film “nearly suffocated by its own nobility,” and lacking in “the one thing that could always be counted on with Jolie as a star: the spark of danger.”

And then there’s the problem of religion.

As if Zamperini’s story weren’t compelling enough, it could be argued that its most interesting turn happened after the war. Tortured by memories of his imprisonment and torture in Japanese POW camps, Zamperini fell into alcoholism, couldn’t hold a job, and was on the verge of losing his wife when she encouraged him to attend Billy Graham’s famous Los Angeles crusade in 1949. “Although he was a famous athlete and war hero,” wrote Graham in his 2007 autobiography, Zamperini “came home feeling unhappy, disillusioned, and broken in spirit.” (Echoing this last descriptor, Colin Hansen has suggested that the only problem with Hillenbrand’s book is the title.) But hearing Graham preach inspired a twist in Zamperini’s story: “One night he wandered into our tent in Los Angeles with his wife and accepted Christ, and his life was transformed.” Not only did he dedicate his life to ministry, but he forgave his tormentors.

But, from what I’ve read, Jolie reduces this chapter to one slide at the end of her film: “After years of severe post-traumatic stress, Louie made good on his promise to serve God, a decision he credited with saving his life… Motivated by his faith, Louie came to see that the way forward was not revenge, but forgiveness.” Not surprisingly, this has already made Unbroken unsatisfactory in the judgment of many evangelical Christians — e.g., Billy Graham’s son Franklin.

Zamperini in 2014
Zamperini, not long before his death earlier this year – Creative Commons (Floatjon)

To be sure, every biography has to make choices — a 97-year life can’t fit into a 2+ hour movie (or a 400+ page book). Like history, biography is impossible.

But even secular reviewers have questioned this particular choice. While a substantial portion of the movie dwells on the physical and psychological violence Zamperini experienced in Japanese POW camps, Puig suggests that “fewer scenes chronicling his torturous days at the prison camp and a conclusion that included his attempts at reconciliation would have made the story more compelling.” (I wonder if there’s not a parallel here to a movie that many conservative Christians celebrated, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. What New Yorker reviewer David Denby says of Jolie’s work — “…confuses long scenes of sadism with truth-telling” — seems descriptive of a cinematic gospel that lingered on scenes of suffering and reduced resurrection to a quick coda.)

And thoughtful Christian critics point out that the choice to end the story with the end of the war enables a misinterpretation of Zamperini’s life. Like Christianity Today critic Alissa Wilkinson, I “rolled my eyes a little bit when I first read about the expected controversy” (in part because Christian hypersensitivity to cinematic depictions of faith is more than tiresome), but I also suspect that she’s right in her final analysis:

…in the end, I’m mostly frustrated that once again a movie is getting marketed at Christians, and will make a ton of money from them, that is probably going to be an exercise in missing the point. And my point here is not that “the Christian part” was removed because of some kind of rumored bias against it (it is not), but that it hollowed out the revolutionary story and left a much more boring inspiration in its place, some more about the indomitable human spirit and so on, which we’ve seen before.

Or here’s how Ivan Mesa put it:

Louie’s life story is not about the innate human power to forgive. In fact, when we consider his life we see the complete opposite: a total inability to overcome sin and the reaping of its disastrous fruit apart from God’s grace. Louie’s survivor instincts—those same instincts that kept him alive at sea and in prison—offered no help when he returned home….

Conversion for Louie was not a postscript or an unobtrusive footnote in an otherwise heroic life; no, conversion was the preface that put his entire life in context.

But to me, that’s only part of the problem. And even Hillenbrand’s justly acclaimed book — which has a compelling description of Zamperini’s conversion — is open to criticism here. More on that in part two of this post…

One thought on “Unbroken: The Challenge of Biography

  1. The Billy Graham Association should have helped produce this film, like they did with Corrie ten Boom’s life story, “The Hiding Place”. Then you would have had a fair representation of Louis Zamperini’s religious experience.

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