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Zamperini's Unbroken a Story of Triumph Amid Adversity

By Chris Carpenter Program Director - NEW YORK -- Former Olympian and World War II veteran Louis Zamperini was a remarkable man of many contrasts. 

He competed against the world’s best at Berlin’s 1936 Summer Olympics.  Lt. Zamperini served his country well as a bombardier in the South Pacific.  He lived through a plane crash only to spend 47 days adrift on a raft with two of his emaciating friends.  Even worse, Zamperini was a prisoner of war, suffering through two years of brutal torture at the hands of a sadistic Japanese prison guard who made it his mission to “break” the former Olympic athlete. Only his impregnable will and courage kept him alive.

Due to his wartime ordeals, Zamperini became a broken man, one who lost himself in a haze of alcohol as he tried to forget the hideous persecution he had endured.  Miraculously, he recovered and actually extended forgiveness to his captors.

By God’s grace, Zamperini eventually found his way out of the darkness and into the arms of Jesus, accepting Christ as his savior at a 1949 Billy Graham crusade.

Sadly, Zamperini passed away on July 2 at the age of 97 due to complications from pneumonia.

Truly an American hero, Louis Zamperini is the subject of Angelina Jolie’s highly anticipated film, Unbroken, that opens nationwide in theaters on Christmas day (Thursday). 

Based on the 2010 bestselling biography by Laura Hillenbrand, Jolie made it her personal mission to tell Zamperini’s story after reading the book.

“We want and need something to hold onto,” explained Jolie, at recent press event in New York.  “We need something that will give us strength.  I was halfway through Louie’s book and I found myself inspired and on fire and feeling better.  I realized if this was having this kind of effect on me and this kind of effect on so many other people, isn’t this what we needed to put forward into the world at this time.”

Jolie’s adaptation of Unbroken is a well crafted, cinematically inspiring film that does an admirable job of telling Zamperini’s unbelievable story of sheer grit, unflagging courage, and ultimate redemption to survive the tortures he endured.  Despite documenting his many personal triumphs in overcoming extreme adversity, Jolie has seemingly left out Zamperini’s greatest triumph: his life-changing conversion to Christ.   

Faith is certainly represented in the film – a childhood church service, praying on the life raft, symbolic use of lighting to illustrate God’s hand upon him -- but no direct mentions of Jesus or Billy Graham.

“I don’t think it (Zamperini’s faith) is generic at all, said Jolie.  “I think it is universal. We are not making it specific to one faith.”

When asked whether Zamperini approved of her decision to make his faith universal to all audiences, Jolie responded, “He said he wanted the message to reach everyone.  He said this (movie) is about reaching everyone and wanted the film to speak to everyone.  We were very clear on his parents’ faith.  They were Catholic.  We were very clear on Louie praying.  If you were looking for symbolism and miracles in the film you will see them.”

To Jolie’s credit, at one critical juncture in the film, Zamperini cries out to God while floating aimlessly on the life raft.  In a sort of foxhole confessional at sea he exhorts, “If you get me through this, if you answer my prayers, I swear, I’ll dedicate my whole life to you.  I’ll do whatever you want.  Please.”

No Jesus but a highly personal declaration to God.

One critical theme that does receive commendable treatment is in the area of forgiveness.  Unbroken features several scenes of Zamperini being abused by his captors, specifically a Japanese prison guard known as “The Bird”.  Despite the constant verbal and physical torture Zamperini suffered through, Hillenbrand writes in her book that he eventually forgave the Bird and actually tried to reach out to him decades later.   His indomitable will and ultimate redemption had a profound effect on actor Jack O’Connell, who plays Zamperini in the film.

“We owe so much to Louie and that generation first and foremost,” O’Connell points out.  “They were such a sacrificial generation.  Everything that we get to experience today came with a cost.  It’s key that we remember people like Louie so that we now make it our responsibility to insure that future generations will remember these important messages of redemption.  Louie’s life is just an incredible account of this indomitable spirit. He could have lived a life void of remorse for the rest of his life but he chose to forgive.”

For his part, Japanese musician turned actor Takamasha Ishihara (Miyavi) found it very difficult to portray “The Bird” onscreen.  Despite the inherent challenges of balancing his personal view of pacifism juxtaposed against the enraged violence his character freely dispenses onscreen, the earnest wunderkind believes that a greater good will emerge.

“I’m not used to hitting people.  I’m not used to hitting strangers,” Ishihara said at the New York press event.  “It was tough.  But evil had taken over and I wanted to help deliver the message that our mission is peace.  So, I tried to imagine what it would be like if they killed my family, my daughters, I would do anything to protect my family.  It’s insane but that is the situation that Louie was in.  I really think and believe that peace is what he wanted.”

Ultimately, Louis Zamperini’s story is a transcendent one, highly worthy of being shared with millions on the big screen.  He was a man that believed everything happens for a reason.  All situations good or bad serve a purpose.  And even though he was a tortured soul early in his life, Zamperini learned to find deeper meaning in the miracles that sustained him.  This hand of God led him to a life of service.  Louis Zamperini lived life well.

Unbroken opens in movie theaters nationwide on Christmas day (Thursday). 

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