‘Unbroken’ breaks into our present dilemma: America on torture

When Angelina Jolie began work on her second film, “Unbroken,” she couldn’t have known that torture would become a hot topic in America after the CIA released a report about torture. “Unbroken” is a movie about a Los Angeles-area man who became a high school legend, went on to the Berlin Olympics representing the US in track and field and survived the war under brutal conditions in a Japanese POW camp.

The movie gets its name from Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography on Louis Zamperini: “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.” Zamperini has written his own story twice: once with Helen Itria for the 1956 “Devil at My Heels” and then with David Rensin in 2003. Writers Joel and Ethan Coen (along with Richard LaGraven and William Nicholson) focus on the survival and resilience and the redemption part is suggested in the epilogue.

Why three books? Because the tale of Zamperini’s first three decades (Zamperini lived to be 97 and died in July of this year, 2014) is so fantastic. By the age of 27, Zamperini had competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, survived a military airplane crash that killed 8 of the 11 crew members, was adrift in the Pacific ocean in a life raft for 47 days–starting out with only a few chocolate bars for food, was “rescued” by the enemy Japanese navy and then spent over two years being brutalized and nearly starved to death in a prisoner of war camp. Then, troubled by post-traumatic stress syndrome, he found salvation after attending a sermon by the legendary evangelist Billy Graham.

Graham helped Zamperini become a Christian inspirational speaker, one who had a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Prisoner of War medal, but not an Olympic one. Zamperini would run a leg of the Olympic Torch relay before his 81st birthday for the Nagano Olympics. You won’t see Graham at all in this movie (but you will get the real Zamperini doing the torch relay as part of the epilogue) and you won’t hear any part of the inspirational speaking.

Zamperini heard Graham in 1949. Dispensing with his religious conversion leaves us with three decades and still–for this one man that’s  a lot of life to cram into one movie. The Coens who have written about individualists: Rooster Cogburn in the 2010 “True Grit” and the titular Davis in the 2013 “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Cogburn drank too much is battling old age and found himself pushed by a headstrong young girl. Davis was snarly and often made bad choices, some of which prevented him from succeeding. Zamperini was rascally as a youngster who was drinking alcohol hidden inside of painted milk bottles before he hit high school and  seemed destined for jail time until his brother channeled his energy into running.

The movie begins with Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) as a bombardier on a mission and intercuts scenes from his boyhood. From scrappy fighter (C.J. Valleroy) to one man in an 11-man flying crew, fighting in an airplane that will soon be scrap. If that mission wasn’t a warning with the men barely making it back, the next one was. The crew disagreed with the brass who deemed the replacement airplane was fly-worthy and the crew proved mostly dead right. Eight of the eleven men die. Zamperini escapes the sinking airplane, finds two inflatable lifeboats and with two other men (Finn Wittrock and Domhnall Gleeson) waits to be rescued.

The rescue never comes. Drifting for 47 days, the men battle the elements, dehydration, starvation and mental deterioration. At the end, only two men survive to be “rescued” by the enemy. The two men become prisoners of war and Zamperini’s Olympic past make him a target to the Japanese propaganda machine and one particularly sadistic guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi) or The Bird.

The script doesn’t linger on sensationalism and gore that you might have come to expect from other war movies. If you want the gory details, you’ll have to read the book and imagine them for yourself. I read that one filmgoer was disappointed not to see the maggots. You, on the other hand, might feel relief at the news. 

Jolie’s movie isn’t about suffering; it is about survival. It isn’t about bitterness; it is about forgiveness through faith–even without the appearance of Billy Graham. Faith in God and forgiveness are suggested in the first strains of music, the angelic choir we hear, the sermon a young Zamperini remembers and Zamperini’s own oath to God and his short comments to other soldiers.

Living in the very city that Louis Zamperini grew up in, Torrance, I can tell you things have changed considerably. The Italians aren’t the outsiders and the city itself is very diverse. Many Japanese have settled here. There’s a Honda and Toyota headquarters here and some of the best Japanese restaurants can be found in the area. Some of the Japanese settled in this area before World War II. Some after. 

Yet certainly in a city like Los Angeles, it’s easy to brush into someone who was involved in the Pacific War during World War II. Some “Remember Pearl Harbor” even if they are post-World War II babies. Yet what does one mean when one remembers that incident in Hawaii that brought us into the war? If Zamperini could forgive a former enemy nation and even the guards who mistreated him, then why can’t we forgive things that are in comparison relatively minor?

Perhaps without Graham, without the re-born Christian aspects, this movie’s lesson of redemption will be less frightening to atheists and agnostics, non-Christians and even rigid sectarians.

Don’t believe the headlines that Japan is angry about “Unbroken.” That’s just the news media making more of a controversy.

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