Will Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ disappoint Christians?

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NEW YORK (RNS)—Angelina Jolie’s highly anticipated film Unbroken features the true story of an Olympian and World War II veteran who was able to extend forgiveness to his captors only after he encountered Christianity.

The problem? The Christianity central to Louis Zamperini’s life is almost entirely absent from the film.

unbroken run425Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic champion who became a prisoner of war during World War II, later struggled with PTSD from his experience and finally turned to Christ. (Universal Studios Photo)That could prove a disappointment to Christian viewers who read the bestseller by Lauren Hillenbrand that spawned the film, or who have been courted by the filmmakers to see the film, which opens in theaters Christmas Day.

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 has attracted its own share of Christian critics who object to its depiction of God.

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.

unbroken camp425After Zamperini’s plane crashed, he spent 47 days adrift at sea, then two years as a Japanese prisoner of war.(Universal Studios Photo)“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. 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.

“We made it universal, not specific to one faith, and that was something that was agreed upon with Louie,” Jolie told reporters.  “He said he wanted the message to reach everyone. He said to make faith and forgiveness universal.”

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Zamperini’s two children also told reporters they were pleased with Jolie’s approach.

Zamperini died from pneumonia 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 scant attention to Zamperini’s faith.

unbroken joli zamperini425Angelina Jolie with Louis Zamperini. (Universal Studios Photo)“There doesn’t need to be a God for me,” Jolie said in 2000. “There’s something in people that’s spiritual, that’s godlike.” Her husband, actor Brad Pitt, who was raised Baptist, has said he is “probably 20 percent atheist and 80 percent agnostic.” At a press screening, reporters were told Jolie would not answer questions related to her own faith or lack thereof.

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 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.”

The sky breaks open and rain pours down, providing the survivors much-needed water in their rafts.

Faith mostly is absent from the rest of the film. 

zamperini billygraham425Louis Zamperini speaking at a Billy Graham crusade in San Francisco in 1958. (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Photo)“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 already blasted the film. “Unbroken is one of the best books ever written,” he wrote in a review. “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 Zamperini forgives “The Bird” and tries—unsuccessfully—to reach out to him. The end of the film, however, says Zamperini “made peace” with his captors.

unbroken beam425Louis Zamperini was able to forgive his captors for the brutality he suffered. (Universal Studios Photo)“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.”

Forgiveness is a central theme in another popular Christian World War II epic, The Hiding Place. Dutch Christian Corrie Ten Boom was sent to a concentration camp for her role in hiding Jews from the Nazis. After her release, one of the camp guards approached her for forgiveness.

“I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then,” she wrote in the book, which later became a film.

unbroken book200Zamperini’s conversion takes up the last 30 pages of the book on which the film is based.Not everyone expects Unbroken to include much on Zamperini’s faith, certainly not on the level of The Hiding Place. It would be difficult for a film to include the conversion narrative without feeling like it was tacked on at the end, said Patton Dodd, editor of OnFaith, who has read the book but not yet seen the movie.

“I can think of all sorts of good reasons a filmmaker would not know how to make sense of the faith content in that book, because it’s really very internal. There isn’t much action, even in the Billy Graham scenes (compared to the rest of the book), and Billy gets all the best lines,” Dodd said. “That makes for tough choices related to visual storytelling.”

A 137-minute film never will be able to include all the details included in a 400-page book. 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. Either way, a story eventually has to end.

Perhaps Zamperini simply was grateful someone like Jolie would elevate his story and bring it to the main screen. Some reports suggest Universal Pictures held the movie rights to Zamperini’s life story more than 50 years.

Before Zamperini’s death, Jolie showed him rough cuts of the film. From all accounts, he had no complaints.

“I made a new friend—Angelina Jolie,” Zamperini said. “The gal really loves me.”

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