Leighton Ford column: ‘Unbroken’ or made over?

“Unbroken,” the much-hyped and heralded movie about Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini, was released on Christmas, and in a few days it was No. 3 at the box office.

When the book on which the movie is based came out it seemed everyone was either reading it or recommending it. I could not put it down until I finished it.

But, quite frankly, my wife and I were hesitant about going to see the movie.

Our reluctance had nothing to do with Zamperini’s story. He was an authentic hero. And Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book is a brilliant detailing of his story … the gifted world-class athlete who might have been the first to break the four-minute mile if war had not interrupted his career … the 47 days he survived on a raft after his plane went down over the Pacific … the months of brutal treatment by a bullying captor.

It was a tough read. My wife, Jeanie, could hardly bear to read the scenes of torture. “But,” she said, “if he could survive it I can read about it.”

Our hesitation then was not about viewing his heroic struggle to survive the crash, the days afloat, the brutal treatment. We did finally go and saw an amazing saga of human endurance and survival in the midst of unspeakable cruelty. Zamperini (who died last year before the movie was released) deserves a huge salute.

What made us hold back is not that the movie gets its wrong. It just stops too soon. There is more to be told.

We met Lou years ago at a dinner in Los Angeles, and we heard him tell about his fallout after the war. He became an alcoholic, a near total wreck.

His wife took him – almost dragged him – to hear Billy Graham. Lou walked out, but realized he needed help, and then did with God what he never did with his enemies: surrendered.

He was as changed a man as could be, devoting the rest of his life to working with troubled youths. He even went back to Japan to find and seek to forgive “Bird,” the most brutal of his captors.

So the book could perhaps fittingly have been titled “Unbroken and Broken.”

What the ocean and the beatings could not do – break him – his own addictions did. But God’s grace made him over. And the movie could have been more dramatic if it had told the whole story of courage, loss, recovery, of an incredible survivor who became a redeemed human being.

Out of his long practice with addicts, psychiatrist Gerald May wrote that “all of us suffer from addiction,” whether to chemicals, work, relationships, or, perhaps most of all, our self-image. These “attachments” chain us, prevent us from truly, freely loving God and others. “It was the consequent realization of my own addictive behavior, that brought me to my knees,” May wrote. “I am glad. Grace was there.”

The prophet Jeremiah saw grace signified when he went to the potter’s house and watched the potter put clay on a wheel. The clay was spoiled in his hand. Rather than throwing it away, the potter reworked it into another vessel. Then the Lord said, “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.”

That is God’s story – of creation made, marred, mended, of lives made over by the hand of God “who makes all things new.” It was Zamperini’s story. It can be ours. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation!” wrote Paul.

“Unbroken” was released at Christmas; Lou’s story could do with a new release in this new year.

“The lives of the saints,” it’s been said, “are made up of ever new beginnings.”

And that is true of all believers. We are not finished yet. God has some new things to do in my life and yours.

I can almost hear Louis Zamperini calling back, “You better believe it.”