Movie Review: Unbroken

A film based on the best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand

On Christmas Day, a powerful film of resilience, redemption and forgiveness hits theaters nationwide. Unbroken is the story of World War II veteran and 1936 Olympic athlete, Louis Zamperini, who died this past summer at age 97. His story was captured in Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-seller of the same title.

Louis’ incredible story includes surviving 47 days in a life raft after being shot down over the Pacific, followed by two years as a prisoner of war in Japan. As a POW, he faced unimaginable, targeted, persistent torture and abuse, primarily at the hands of one guard.

Grace Hill Media invited me to a pre-screening of Unbroken, and I came away impressed with the acting, the production quality and the sense of truly being there. The movie was faithful to the story as told in the book. On those factors alone, I recommend the film. However, viewers unfamiliar with the story need to know in advance that the POW scenes of brutality are truly brutal and disturbingly real.

The film ends with Louis’ return to America after the war. Those who’ve read the book know there is more to the story. Louis’ return to civilian life was followed by years struggling with persistent, vivid memories of brutality, a desire for revenge and uncontrolled drinking. But in 1949, at the urging of his wife, he attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. On the second night he gave his life over to Christ and experienced a miraculous transformation that led to him forgiving the guard who had traumatized him. He later returned to Japan to preach forgiveness to many of his former captors. It’s a true story of God’s ability to transform and heal.

Because the film ends before Louis’ conversion, some will say it missed the best part of the story, centering only on his remarkable endurance and inner strength. Yet the impact of Louis’ faith is not lost. It is found early in the film when he is a child and then includes several God-centered conversations as an adult, as well as his life-raft vow (in the midst of a raging storm) to serve God all his life if he survives the night.

Finally, the director uses a text epilogue to connect that life-raft vow to Louis’ later mission of forgiveness in Japan. This is followed by actual footage of the elderly athlete carrying the Olympic torch during the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

If this were a film produced solely for a Christian audience, the Billy Graham event would have been appropriate. However, its target audience is much broader. The result will undoubtedly be a popular, nationwide blockbuster. But this blockbuster is more than simply excellent entertainment. It’s thought-provoking, touching on core issues of what it means to be human: the choice of enduring or giving up, when faced with hardship; and the choice of dwelling in anger and hate or choosing to forgive, when facing injustice.

It is a perfect opportunity for engaging pre-belief friends in meaningful discussions that ultimately point to Christ. Those friends might not be ready to step through the doors of the church, but the inspirational example of Louis Zamperini as portrayed in Unbroken, and as made relevant in discussions with Christ-followers, might be just what is needed to make a decision for eternity.

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