MOVIE REVIEW: Unbroken: Path to Redemption

(Photo by WTA Group/Universal 1440 Entertainment)


As cited in my review nearly four years ago, Angelina Jolie’s sophomore directorial effort Unbroken left out an enormously important portion of the Louis Zamperini story. Constituting the “redemption” subtitle of Hillenbrand’s nonfiction bestseller, the heroic veteran’s homefront story of post-traumatic stress disorder, family beginnings, reborn Christian faith, and his quest to forgive his captors was all reduced to an epilogue slideshow before the credits. Granted, no single film epic could fit this man’s full account, but Jolie’s Oscar hopeful missed a golden opportunity to cleanse the dire darkness it presented with the hope and inspiration fitting of the subject and his larger significance.

Stepping forward unofficially as a literal and figurative “spiritual sequel,” Unbroken: Path to Redemption corrects that omission. Glowing with effort above its pedigree, the film is an earnest and very commendable exploration into what elevated the former Olympian and POW survivor into a true legend of his “greatest generation.” There is no begrudging this second attempt to make worthy what was tabled as circumstantial.

A tidy opening montage recaps neophytes to what was told before ending with Zamperini’s airport homecoming to California. Louis (played by Samuel Hunt, best known as a recurring character on NBC’s Chicago P.D.) denies his place and stature as a hero, saying he merely survived as he returns to hugs and headlines in Torrance, California. Gifted insurance money pushes him as a poster boy to travel the country pitching war bonds for his new commanding major (stalwart character actor Bob Gunton of The Shawshank Redemption). Behind his dashing good looks and winning smile is a tortured soul still haunted by the hell he experienced marooned at sea and at the hands of his villainous captors. Frequent nightmarish visions of sharks, the squalid conditions, and his chief tormentor, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (David Sakurai), jolt him towards the bottom of a bottle and instead of the therapeutic offers from his VA doctor (the recognizable Gary Cole).

Two rays of sunshine would enter Louis’s life to help battle the vices and fears he cannot rid himself. The first is the love of a good woman named Cynthia Applewhite (the alluring Merritt Patterson of The Royals) he meets in Miami, Florida. Wooed in a whirlwind, the two quickly marry and start a family together back in Torrance. Unable to earn breadwinner money and disappointed by setbacks trying to return to Olympic shape in time for the 1948 Summer Games in London, Louis bottoms out even further, squandering money and trust. Through the Cynthia’s emotional and exasperated prodding, the second ray comes from Louis discovering faith through the 1949 Los Angeles roadshow crusades of evangelical leader Billy Graham (played by his grandson and spitting image Will Graham).

On paper and on screen, the lower budget of this film compared to the big studio push that was Unbroken is plain to see. Any cinematographer and composer was going to be a step down from the acclaimed Roger Deakins and two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat. Nevertheless, the assembled crew here outperforms their levels wonderfully. Director of photography Zoran Popovic (War, Inc.) captures all of the gloss of the era to give a stellar glow to the excellent and corner-to-corner and head-to-toe production value from production designer Mayne Berke (The Princess Diaries), costume designer Diane Crooke (CHIPS), and makeup department head Marina Proctor (Little Accidents). Bathed in these impeccable period details, the troupe of mostly TV actors comport themselves equally well. The compliments for Samuel Hunt and Merritt Patterson far outnumber the winces.

Unbroken: Path to Redemption does not hide its faith-based core, especially when directed by God’s Not Dead franchise steward Harold Cronk working under the maligned sermonizing label that comes with the backing of Pure Flix Entertainment. In spite of that stigma, folks suspiciously expecting to be polarized can stand to be impressed by the given treatment of its true-life subject. Simply put, the Zamperini story material is worlds better than a scribbled God’s Not Dead film, especially when fostered by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It) instead of Cronk himself. You cannot tell this story without a thick varnish of religious conviction. Doing so with soft grace and righteous composure stands as a testament to the man who lived that very path rather than a shoehorned agenda where one was not present. That successful portrayal of shifted strength is what earns this film priceless respect.

LESSON #1: DON’T BE AFRAID OF SEEKING HELP FOR YOUR PROBLEMS — Whether it is now in the War on Terror or then after World War II, far too high a percentage of PTSD goes undiagnosed and untreated, leading to a tidal wave of secondary harmful effects from alcoholism and substance abuse to emotional instability and violent tendencies. For those that think “toughing it out” makes you more of a man, look at the defeated bottomed-out examples of those that don’t get support. Louis reached that point. Those aren’t men. Those are messes. Help comes in many forms from people and experts to love and environment. Find the brand that silences the triggers.

LESSON #2: ACCEPTING SALVATION, WHATEVER IT MAY BE — You don’t have to be an devout evangelical follower to find power in this character arc. Pulling the religious tone out, salvation can mean “preservation or deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss.” Folks, that’s the human condition regardless of what doctrine your follow or not. Louis Zamperini found something bigger to live for and applied faith to his circumstances to improve his own salvation. Take yours where it suits and helps you.

LESSON #3: EXTENDING FORGIVENESS — With Matthew 6:14 close to his heart, Zamperini would go on to spend years after finding his faith sharing his sense of mercy to his former Japanese captors and offered to teach delinquent L.A. youth the same skills for decades. As aforementioned, the Louis Zamperini story cannot fit into one movie. It doesn’t fit into two either. This final lesson is the springboard and bookended culmination of this film that could launch yet another cinematic chapter to this man’s eminence.