To understand my thoughts about the new movie Unbroken, you have to know a little bit about my expectations. They were low. Why? Because I loved the book and could not imagine a movie coming close to recreating Laura Hillenbrand’s wonderful narrative. For that reason, I didn’t expect much. So the film didn’t need to be great to exceed my expectations, and it did exceed them without being great. Still, I think you should see it. Here’s why.
First of all, let me just say that I am grateful that Angelina Jolie got a fire in her belly about making this movie. The story has been languishing in Hollywood for decades, and somehow she got it done. Zamperini’s story is so big and so important, and yet no one has been able to pull it off until now. No doubt, her relationship with Zamperini had something to do with this. All things considered, she did a fine job with the portion of the story that she decided to tell. But the difficulty is that it really is only a portion of the story. Hillenbrand’s narrative of Louie’s life divides into three major phases: pre-crash, crash-imprisonment, post-war. Jolie focuses almost entirely on the middle phase. In Hillenbrand’s book, the resolution occurs in the post-war phase. Because Jolie doesn’t include that, she has to create her own mini-resolution out of Zamperini’s release from prison. But anyone who knows the story knows that Zamperini’s war didn’t end there. I am grateful that Jolie at least told some of the story, but there really is something big missing at the end.
Second, I have low expectations for film adaptations of great books. Even the best ones usually fall short of the stories depicted in the books. This one was no exception. Because this movie focuses on Zamperini’s suffering during the war, you don’t get a sense of what Zamperini’s life was like before and after the war. You don’t see what Zamperini’s running career was really like, nor do you get a sense of his time at USC, his befriending a Japanese spy in California, his transition from athlete to soldier, or anything else from the 1936 Olympics until his time in the war after 1941. Even the parts of the book that the film does focus on is abbreviated. The film doesn’t take you to the depths of Louie’s suffering like the book does. Nor do you see just how sadistic “The Bird” was and just how much Louie was consumed with hatred for the man. But I do not view this as a shortcoming on Jolie’s part. It is a shortcoming of the medium. What she did, she did well. And I credit her for that.
Third, I have low expectations for non-Christians understanding and retelling a Christian story. Much has been made of the fact that Zamperini’s conversion after the war is not depicted in this movie. To be sure, it is a big gaping hole at the end, and I (like many other Christians) missed it. But is anyone really surprised by this? Why would we expect more? Before seeing the movie, I had heard that the conversion was missing. So again, my expectations were very low. I wish that Zamperini’s post-war life could have been given more time. But I also see that it would have been difficult to do that justice without making it into a four-hour movie. Instead, that aspect of Zamperini’s life was only depicted in seed form. I disagree with the decision to omit this part, but I get it. I really do.
Fourth, I thought the brief footage at the end about Zamperini’s post-war life was emotionally powerful. Again, I think it’s a big omission to leave out his evangelical commitment. Still, there was enough there to make the viewer curious. Anyone who does a Google search on Zamperini after seeing the movie will find out soon enough what his life was about. There was a gasp in the theater when they showed that Zamperini only passed away just this year. Clearly, many people in the theater did not know that he was alive until very recently. They know about him now, and that’s a good thing.
In sum, what the film covers, it covers well. But there is much left uncovered, and that is a shortcoming of the medium. For me, that means viewers need not blame Jolie for this. Rather, it means that viewers should read the book.