Angelina Jolie’s film “Unbroken” features the true story of an Olympian and World War II veteran who was only able to extend forgiveness to his captors after he encountered Christianity.
The problem? The Christianity that is central to Louis Zamperini’s life is almost entirely absent from the film.
That could be a disappointment to Christian viewers who read the best-seller by Lauren Hillenbrand that spawned the film, or who have been courted by the filmmakers to see the film, which opens in theaters on Christmas.
The question is whether Hollywood can lure faith-based audiences with a story that’s based on faith but doesn’t pay much attention to it, especially against the blockbuster biblical epic “Exodus,” which opened Dec. 12.
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“Unbroken” features the real-life story of Zamperini, whose plane crashed in the Pacific during World War II. After spending 47 days adrift at sea, he spent two years as a Japanese prisoner of war.
After the war, he wrestled with addiction and his marriage nearly ended in divorce. All that changed in 1949, when he attended a Los Angeles crusade by an up-and-coming evangelist named Billy Graham. The two would team up together during later crusades.
“Unfortunately early reports are that #Unbroken gives very short shrift to the faith side of Zamperini’s journey. When will Hollywood learn?” author Eric Metaxas tweeted.
The film doesn’t ignore faith, but it includes no mention of Jesus or Graham, who was born in Charlotte. Faith is portrayed more generically – unlike the 2010 book by Hillenbrand, which was praised by Christian readers for capturing the drama of Zamperini’s conversion.
Zamperini’s conversion takes up the last 30 pages of the book; Jolie ends the film in the same way – even though many Christians would see it as where a person’s life begins.
Zamperini died from pneumonia on July 2 at age 97. His son, Luke Zamperini, is helping promote the film.
Jolie’s role as director prompted questions about the film’s faith element; given Jolie’s own lack of faith, some reviewers questioned whether the actress would give short shrift to Zamperini’s faith.
The film does include some generic portrayals of faith and God. Early in the film, Zamperini is scolded for not paying attention in church while the priest tells congregants to love their enemies. He watches as his mother prays, and he asks his fellow crash survivor about his faith.
And he turns to faith in his most desperate moment. “If you get me through this, if you answer my prayers, I swear I’ll dedicate my whole life to you,” Zamperini is shown praying during his 47 days at sea. “I’ll do whatever you want. Please.”
Faith is mostly absent from the rest of the film. “After years of severe post-traumatic stress, Louie made good on his promise to serve God, a decision he credited with saving his life,” one slide at the end of the film says. “Motivated by his faith, Louie came to see that the way forward was not revenge, but forgiveness.”
Christian media critic Ted Baehr has already blasted the film. He said in a review posted at Christian Today: “The great story is that he got out of his anger problem (with PTSD) by coming to Christ.”
The film spends several scenes depicting the abuse Zamperini experienced at the hands of a Japanese soldier nicknamed “The Bird.” In the book, Hillenbrand writes that Zamperini forgives “The Bird” and tries (unsuccessfully) to reach out to him. The end of the film, however, says that Zamperini “made peace” with his captors.
“He returned to Japan, where he found and made peace with his former captors,” a slide at the end says. “Only the Bird refused to meet with him.”
For some, saying Zamperini “made peace” instead of “forgave” may not be enough.
“To me, the most amazing part of his story is not just surviving the incomprehensible beatings in the Japanese internment camp, or being adrift at sea for over 47 days,” California pastor Greg Laurie told The Christian Post. “It was the fact that Louie was able, because of his conversion and newfound Christian faith, to go back to Japan to the very guards who mistreated him and forgive them, as well as tell them about Jesus Christ.”