Louis Zamperini (1917–2014) was a miracle of a man. He truly lived—better, survived—one of the greatest stories ever written. Nonfiction stories are written, too, you know. “In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16). Some stories wake us up and remind us of this mouth-stopping truth. Louie’s life could only have been born in the mind and heart of God.
A film opens today bringing Louie’s epic story to the big screen. It’s based on Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable telling of Louie’s extraordinary story, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. Louie’s life is a Lord of the Rings trilogy born in the flesh of one strong but feeble man. The Coen brothers (writers), Angelina Jolie (producer and director) and everyone else involved should be applauded for taking on a life as excruciating and inspiring as Louie’s. It is a monumental task—one too large for life, much less for a full-length feature film.
I won’t offer any spoiler alerts, because I don’t believe this article will spoil anything for you—at least anything that’s not already suggested in the title (Unbroken: Survival. Resilience. Redemption.). In fact, having read Hillenbrand’s book, I consider this an anti-spoiler—like reading up on the history and landmarks of Washington D.C. before you spend a week there. I believe you’ll enjoy the film (and Louie) more knowing the full story, especially the pages not covered in Jolie’s 137 minutes.
Worse Than World War II
Unbroken, the film, begins with the trouble-making son of Italian immigrants, chronicles his unlikely and meteoric rise to fame as an Olympian, displays some of the unspeakable horrors of war, and highlights the resilience and strength even weak men can have in the face of agonizing pain and unrelenting terror. What the film does will be intense and emotional enough to sober and inspire most of us. Violence, starvation and torture will even be too much for many. After a plane crash into the ocean, Louie and two fellow soldiers were trapped on a raft for 47 days before they were captured by the Japanese. The Bird—the military officer who held and mercilessly tortured Louie—is rightly, if not inadequately, portrayed as an awful, sadistic villain and criminal. But there are worse horrors hidden in this edition of the story.
The movie simply doesn’t go low enough, and therefore cannot end high enough. If the worst things in life were war, torture and death, then the movie might have done Zamperini justice. Louie himself, though, would testify they are not. There are worse evils and worse fates facing all of us—the darkness within each of us and the darkness we therefore deserve.
Fairy Tale or Horror Film?
Those who don’t read the story will miss the reality that Louie was actually a very broken man—horribly broken by sin and then sweetly broken by God.
Shortly after his feet landed back on American soil, Louie went back with his family to his childhood home in California. They enjoyed food and conversation, unwrapping several years of unwrapped Christmas gifts—everything seemed peaceful, almost normal. Then his sister Sylvia played a recording of Louie’s voice that had been broadcast over public radio during the war. “Take it off! Take it off!” Louie fell into a violent, screaming convulsion—a scene that would sadly mark most of his next several years.