When floating in a raft on the sea, half-dead, and hallucinating, Louis Zamperini gazed up at the stars and whispered to God: “If you save me, I will serve you forever.”
As told by Laura Hillenbrand in Zamperini’s biography and in Angelina Jolie’s feature-film adaptation, “Unbroken,” Zamperini, an olympic athlete and American soldier during WWII was rescued only to spend torturous years in a Japanese prison camp.
Jolie’s film ends when Zamperini reaches home, and “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” picks up where the first movie left off, following Zamperini in his return, recovery, and new life in the United States.
While portraying Louis Zamperini’s conversion to Christianity out of the throes of post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” fails to understand the real drama of forgiveness, and instead paints a black-and-white salvation narrative so sharp that it lacks dimension, giving us the “what” of Zamperini’s story without the critical “how.”
While Hillenbrand’s book “Unbroken” undergirds both the first movie and this “Path to Redemption” follow-up, the movies share only a producer. Samuel Hunt plays Louis Zamperini and uses the uncanny resemblance to full effect. He stars alongside Merritt Patterson as Cynthia Zamperini and Bobby Campo as Pete, the elder Zamperini brother. Starting with Louis’ joyful welcome by his family and recruitment to sell war bonds, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” follows Louis through the heights of romance and the depths of alcoholism and PTSD until he finally ends up at a Billy Graham crusade and reiterates his promise on the raft to God.
Zamperini’s conversion at the Billy Graham crusade was a rare Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion experience: dramatic and definite. After two-and-a-half years of nights torn by trauma and torturous flashbacks, Zamperini slept through the night.
But the actors get so caught up in playing familiar roles and forget to act like real humans, which shows in inconsistencies of character. They cheapen a true story that is solid gold, making it feel like cheap thrift store gilt.
In one of the lowest ebbs of Louis’ life shown in the movie, he drinks himself into a bad business deal, loses his remaining self-control, and slaps his wife when she won’t give him the checkbook to fund said shady deal with their remaining $3,000. His wife finds a pocket-sized .38 under their bed. Pete, Louis’s older brother, tracks down Louis drunk in a bar, warning him to stay away from Cynthia and their young child. He appears ready to physically block Louis from returning home until Zamperini insults his brother’s “nice clean” service in the Navy and his brother leaves with only a verbal warning to Zamperini.
I would go a whole lot farther than a verbal warning if a known alcoholic had already lost his temper with his wife and had a gun back at the house. The reliable “big brother” figure, who carefully took the keys from the ignition of the old car in which he found Louis nostalgically drinking, makes a dramatic statement (“don’t go back there!”) without actually reinforcing it.
The dynamics of the failing marriage — this is supposed to be one of the most tragic consequences of Louis’ abandonment of God — aren’t convincing. Cynthia threatens to leave after the violent episode, but instead of packing her bags, announces that she wants a divorce … and doesn’t leave. The best explanation we get comes when she tells a groggy Louis she loves him and won’t leave him, after she returns from a Billy Graham crusade.
The pieces fall back into place after Louis’s conversion, he only has to pour his whiskey down the kitchen sink and hug his wife and child. There was apparently no broken trust, no withdrawal symptoms, no responsibility to rebuild a relationship with a wife to whom he repeatedly lied. Love may continue when trust is broken, but wouldn’t continual deceit, alcoholism, failure to provide (which admittedly isn’t his fault entirely), loss of control around her and the child fracture the relationship they had? They married after three weeks of knowing each other, and the reason she sticks it out with him is simply because she’s a Christian — at least that’s the reason the audience is given.
A movie that seems to understand so well the dramatic effect of divine forgiveness doesn’t give any details on how exactly one man, or one woman forgives another man.
Forgiveness requires renouncing the valid claim to justice. It means absorbing every blow, every sneer without seeing a retaliatory roundhouse laid on the torturer’s jaw — without the abuser offering any apology, even without any acknowledgement. The film did not successfully convey this transformation in Zamperini. It’s probably a good thing that the Zamperini of “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” didn’t ever see the Bird, the guard who abused him in the prison camp, in person. He probably would have shot him, Billy Graham conversion and all.
As portrayed in this film, Zamperini’s conversion doesn’t seem to give him meaning, or an increased ability to interact with reality and the very real scars he must have — the only one we see is one his ankle. Gnarly. He’s got to be torn up, literally.
To judge only from this film, eternal salvation gives you the benefits of good counseling and good meds. Along this path to redemption, a man saved by the grace of God is turned into a hand-shaking celebrity of fake forgiveness. “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” fails to capture either the original story or the re-telling, sacrificing the individual character of each for a generic sketch that captures only cliches.
Zamperini’s story is true, but the subtitle of “Unbroken: A Path to Redemption” — “a true story” — feels less like a declaration and more like an apology.