Many films that will no doubt garner Oscar’s attention this year were either dreary or agenda driven, some doing their best to promote secular significance while avoiding a spiritual component found in many of the best films of years past: The Tree of Life, The Life of Pi, It’s a Wonderful Life, Dead Man Walking, Schindler’s List, Places in the Heart, Tender Mercies, etc. These were works of art, films that nurtured the spirit as well as entertained. There were some good films this year, but enduring classics? Not in my opinion. One film came close.
Unbroken (opening Christmas Day), detailed the early life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II after being stranded at sea for 47 days. Due to his faith, the film’s protagonist was able to endure and eventually forgive the evil thrust upon him. Alas, this healing process and ability to forgive is only given to us via a couple of written lines at the very end of the production. There’s little to no time given to Mr. Zamperini’s eventual Christian conviction – just two written sentences at film’s end.
“After years of severe post-traumatic stress, Louis made good on his promise to serve God, a decision he credited with saving his life.
Motivated by his faith, Louis came to see that the way forward was not revenge, but forgiveness.”
One leaves the theater suspecting the filmmakers missed the real story.
Understand, Unbroken is a solid film, well acted, moving, and instructive. Director Angelina Jolie (yes, that Angelina Jolie) bravely depicted Zamperini’s torment at the hands of the Japanese, despite the PC climate we live in. The fierceness of Zamperini’s captors had to be depicted in order to reveal the man’s indomitable spirit and the grandness of his absolution. She’ll catch some flak for the depiction, but it was a brave and honest decision.
It’s a good movie. But why isn’t it a great movie?
I come back to those two closing lines. We are told that Zamperini came to forgive his tormentors, including the camp commander known as the Bird, who was particularly barbaric. Reading those lines, I thought, there’s your story! At 137 minutes, the film runs long due to the fact that we are subjected to endless scenes reflecting his time spent suffering at sea, then in a POW camp. Zamperini’s later conversion and healing process are given virtually no screen time. Why? That’s the story! That’s this man’s legacy – how a soul can find healing and peace.
How many films have we seen where soldiers have endured POW camps, while movies depicting survivors learning to forgive the horrific deeds done to them are few? If Zamperini can forgive those who bullied and beat him nearly to death, can we not forgive those who have mistreated us in more limited ways? So, show us the example, Hollywood!
I was privileged to speak with Luke Zamperini, Louis’ son. While he understood my frustration, he filled me in on how his dad felt about the film. Louis died at the age of 97, but had been able to see a rough cut of the production (on Ms. Jolie’s laptop, no less)
L.Z. “My dad’s story was so immense I can’t imagine getting it into a single film,” Luke began.
P.B. “We’re talking sequel?”
L.Z. (He laughs) “There should be…the film is the way my dad would like it to be. Here’s why. He didn’t want it to be a film that just appealed to Christians. In his work as an evangelist, he was very subtle. He didn’t want to put the gospel right in front of your face. His style was more to get you interested and have your curiosity get the best of you and to find out for yourself.
“I personally think this film accomplishes that. When you see those few lines you’re talking about shown over him running in an Olympics marathon in Japan (at age 80), with this joyous expression on his face, that will cause curiosity. That shot and those lines will get people to start thinking.”
P.B. A good point. The symbolism of him running with that smile on his face may indeed get people to think about spiritual matters. When do you think he came to terms of forgiveness?
L.Z. “With his post-traumatic stress, life was really going down the tubes for him. It was his mom who suggested he attend a local Billy Graham crusade.
“So he found himself in that tent meeting in 1949, Billy Graham’s first crusade in Los Angeles. He remembered his promise to God made when near death at sea that if He got him out of this, he would serve Him. So he went backstage to the prayer area and found a young counselor who led him in the sinner’s prayer. He told me that he realized at that moment he was done getting drunk, done fighting, that he’d forgiven his prison guards, including the Bird.
“A year later, instead of going back to Japan for revenge, he went there to preach the gospel and to preach forgiveness. It was important to him to look his former tormenters in the eye and shake their hand and show that he had forgiven them.”
I repeat, there’s your great movie. The film not made would address the question, how do we forgive those who trespass against us?
In the filmmaker’s defense, there is nothing more difficult to bring to the screen than a depiction of spiritual healing and forgiveness. Matters of the spirit are unseen by eyes that don’t view with faith. But there have been films more successful with addressing the question of how one comes to forgive monsters. Though I do think Unbroken is worth your viewing, I’ll leave you with two other films that are more open with how we can forgive others.
Amish Grace is the true story about the aftermath of the 2006 schoolhouse shooting in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. The book’s title best summarizes the production’s theme – “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy.” For me, it wasn’t a defense of a religious sect, but rather, a penetrating examination of the concept of true forgiveness. Like Facing the Giants, this telefilm may have a few of the same production misdemeanors, but like Facing the Giants, it’s an important film because it deals with spiritual truths and provides a positive answer to a nagging question.
The Scarlet and the Black was a made-for-TV true story of a priest (Gregory Peck) who harbored allied POW escapees and the Nazi official (Christopher Plummer) who tried to catch him. The film is long (155 min.) but the message contained at the end of the picture should not be missed. A true example of Jesus’ compassion will help remind each of us to love our enemies.
One of the greatest mysteries of the Christian walk is this ability to forgive those who wrong us. I have come to the conclusion, after dealing with the inability to do so on my own, hurts and a broken spirit can only be healed by the great physician Himself. There’s your story.