Unbroken is the main title of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete and World War II prisoner-of-war hero who responded to an altar call at a Billy Graham crusade and became an evangelist himself, even returning to Japan and visiting prison guards from his time as a POW.
Unbroken is also now the name of two films about Zamperini based on the book: Angelina Jolie’s 2014 war movie, based on the first half of Hillenbrand’s book, and now this faith-based unofficial companion piece from God’s Not Dead director Harold Cronk, which covers the rest. (Matthew Baer was a producer on both films, and Vincenzo Amato and Maddalena Ischiale reprise their roles as, respectively, Louis’ brother Anthony and mother Louise. The two productions are otherwise unconnected.)
Jolie’s film was co-written by the Coen brothers, Richard LaGravenese (The Horse Whisperer) and William Nicholson (Shadowlands). Unbroken: Path to Redemption is written by Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It) and Ken Hixon (City by the Sea).
Talented writers have labored to bring a compelling life to the screen. Both films are well acted, and cinematography and sound design are strengths in both films.
Why doesn’t either film work?
Unbroken is largely a secular via crucis, an examination of Zamperini’s suffering as a POW under a sadistic camp guard — Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “the Bird” — but ultimately has nothing to say about Zamperini’s suffering or his determination to endure. You can see why someone would want to tell this story, but it wasn’t told in an illuminating way.
The shadow of the Bird — and, really, the shadow of the whole earlier film — looms over Unbroken: Path to Redemption, which follows Louis (Samuel Hunt) through his post-POW stint as a celebrity war hero hawking war bonds, his marriage to a good woman named Cynthia Applewhite (Merritt Patterson), and his struggles with PTSD. These include flashbacks, anxiety, heavy drinking and Louis’ obsession with the Bird (David Sakurai), who continues to torment his former prisoner, albeit in hallucinations and nightmares.
Unbroken relegated Zamperini’s religious conversion and life of faith to closing titles, which I found unsatisfying. At the time I felt that perhaps Louis’ later religious conversion and faith might have held a key to illuminating the character and his story. I still think it’s possible a film about Zamperini overcoming his demons through faith and the support of his wife and other believers might be a story worth telling.
But Path to Redemption builds to the same climax as Hillenbrand’s book: Zamperini’s conversion at a Billy Graham crusade. Everything after that is denouement: Triumph over alcoholism consists of Louis pouring his liquor down the drain. In Tokyo he briefly shakes hands with a few prison guards, but no conversations or scenes show the human reality of how he has changed.
Reviewing a Billy Graham production in the 1980s for Christianity Today, Harry Cheney perceptively proposed, “An encounter with Christ should propel the action, not end it.” Worthwhile religious movies explore the implications and the lived experience of faith or perhaps illuminate the reality of life without it. Regrettably, Path to Redemption has no interest in the first and isn’t up to the second.
What that leaves is a rather trite tale of a hard-drinking protagonist spiraling downward while a long-suffering woman looks on and tries to help. Louis hides flasks of liquor from Cynthia, who pretends not to notice until it can’t be ignored. As a veteran and college dropout, Louis struggles to find work until — well, actually, I guess accepting Christ at that altar call really did solve that problem, since it led to his career as an evangelist under Billy’s own mentorship.
Hunt makes for a sympathetic lead and has a winning smile that works both when Louis means it and when he’s using it as a crutch. Patterson is buoyant, supportive and finally concerned in a role that doesn’t give her much more to do.
Like the The Case for Christ — another Pure Flix film about the spiritual struggles of a male protagonist and his concerned wife — there’s a wise black woman of faith (Vanessa Bell Calloway) to dispense words of insight to the wife, encouraging her on the road to winning her man for Jesus.
There’s no getting around the fact that Jolie is an accomplished director, while Cronk is at best an adequate one. For a man whose work consists largely of scenes of people having conversations, he shows little interest in finding visually interesting ways of presenting them. He likes to keep his camera at or just below the actors’ eye lines, and he never tires of shot/countershot back-and-forth.
More effective are the flashback and nightmare sequences, as Cronk blends reality with perception, allowing the traumatic images and fears in Louis’ subconscious to bleed into his actual surroundings. A couch on which Louis lies in a darkened room after a bad night out suddenly heaves as if moved by a poltergeist; moments later, Louis is on his life raft in the Pacific being strafed by Japanese fighter pilots and menaced by a shark. An elevator splinters under a hail of gunfire like the fuselage of Louis’ B-24.
Some of the better effects are smaller ones. A bowl of rice at a restaurant appears to be crawling with worms, and Louis explodes at the hapless waiter about no one having ordered rice. (I can’t help thinking that this effect would have been even better had it been subtler: tiny maggots instead of large worms.)
Likewise, an early nightmare in which Louis is strangling a figure that is initially the Bird but then morphs into Cynthia ends with Louis abruptly waking up with Cynthia sleeping soundly beside him. (In Hillenbrand’s account, Zamperini actually woke up strangling his wife, but the film version is more compelling to me, even if Louis’ nightmare lingers longer than he thinks.)
On the other hand, the film overly modulates some of the darker paths Zamperini went down, such as a morbid fantasy about flying to Japan to find the Bird and murder him. Perhaps the filmmakers were concerned about making Louis too unsympathetic, or perhaps this was just too dark for a Pure Flix film.
Either way, the effect is to make Louis less a deeply disturbed, damaged soul than an increasingly grumpy drunk who’s less convincing than he should be when he talks about being mad at God. (When his old family priest tells Louis not to discount God’s role in his journey, Louis cracks, “Don’t worry, Padre, I give him all the blame.”) Undercutting the darkness of Louis’ descent undercuts the power of his redemption.
Will Graham, the grandson of the late, great Baptist evangelist and a preacher in his own right, bears a family resemblance to his grandfather, but lacks Billy’s fiery zeal and authoritative presence. At one point, Graham speaks directly into the camera; perhaps the intention was to evoke the legendary evangelist’s ability to create a sense of personal connection with individual audience members, but the effect is to make the scene all about Louis rather than placing Louis on the frontier of something greater than himself.
In a brief coda, Louis reconciles with his brother Anthony, who is presumably happy to see Louis no longer drinking. How does Louis’ Catholic family feel about his new come-to-Jesus evangelical faith, not to mention his apparent wedding to a Protestant woman in a Protestant church? That’s the kind of messy human question that never comes up in a film like Path to Redemption.
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Caveat Spectator: Some violent and disturbing imagery; recurring drunkenness; a single curse. Teens and up.