Unbroken: Path to Redemption: The Rest of the Story, by Tyler Smith
In Angelina Jolie’s 2014 film Unbroken, we are told the harrowing story of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner who fought in World War II. During that time, his plane was shot down, he spent over a month floating in a raft in the Pacific Ocean, and was eventually picked up by Japanese soldiers, who deposited him in a particularly brutal POW camp. Zamperini was eventually freed, and returned home a hero. It is a powerful story, but ultimately an incomplete one. Jolie’s film falls victim to the classic attitude about World War II: namely an instinctive refusal to contend with the psychological and emotional aftermath of the experience for U.S. veterans following the last “good” war. Explorations of post traumatic stress disorder were uncommon at the time, but a few notable films – including The Best Years of Our Lives – were willing to acknowledge that the mental impact of the war didn’t necessarily end with Japan’s surrender. Many audience members – myself included – were disappointed that Jolie didn’t dig further into Zamperini’s subsequent alcoholism, spousal abuse, and eventual redemption. It’s hard to know exactly why Jolie didn’t include this in her film; maybe she was worried about the film being too long or that Zamperini’s conversion to Christianity would turn off certain audience members. Whatever the reason, many worried that, Zamperini’s survival tale having already been told in a high profile Hollywood film, the rest of his story would eventually fade away.
Enter faith-based production company Pure Flix and director Harold Cronk of God’s Not Dead fame with their follow-up film Unbroken: Path to Redemption. This film picks up right where the first one leaves off, with Zamperini (Samuel Hunt) returning to the United States after enduring horrendous torture at the hands of Japanese prison guards. He attempts to settle back in to a quiet life, marrying Cynthia Applewhite (Merritt Patterson) and resolving to find a good job. Unfortunately, though, the horrors of war have stayed with Zamperini and he soon finds that the only way to keep the nightmares at bay is to stay in a perpetual state of drunkenness. As he refuses to seek help for his trauma, he pulls further and further away from his wife, his family, and the rest of the world.
This is most certainly a story worth telling. We are inundated with tales of heroism and survival in film, but we rarely see the unfortunate aftermath. There is often a sad cost to such exploits, and to ignore it is to cheapen the sacrifice made by those we revere. I was excited that Pure Flix chose to tell this story, but was also a little concerned that they wouldn’t have the spine to steer fully into the ugliness of it. In the end, I was right to be concerned, but the general power of the story was still able to shine through the occasional toothlessness of the storytelling.
Everything seems just a little too clean and pretty. From the art direction to the costuming to the makeup, so much of Unbroken: Path to Redemption feels polished to the point of fantasy. Rather than put us in the actual 1940s, the film seems more content to evoke the 1940s through visualizations of Americana. Classic cars, fedoras, apple pie, clean suburbs; it’s all here, trying so earnestly to convince us that we’re in another time and place. Were this a stylistic choice to suggest the superficial sheen of idyllic post-war America (a la David Lynch’s Blue Velvet), I might be more forgiving. But, instead, as is so often the case with Christian film, the director seems to be trying to prove that this is a real movie with a real budget that should be taken seriously by mainstream audiences, unfortunately putting aside any kind of recognizable reality in the process. And the less said about the bombastic, telegraphic music, the better.
Where director Harold Cronk does excel, however, is in the depictions of Zamperini’s nightmares and visions. Cronk transitions seamlessly into these horrific images, understanding that to live in a constant drunken haze, sleep is always right around the corner and can come on without warning. In one such sequence, Zamperini is lying on his bed, with his hand hanging off the side. The camera settles on that hand, just inches from the floor, as the room slowly begins to fill with water, through the floorboards. And, just like that, Zamperini is back on that raft in the Pacific, filled with sharks and dying of thirst. The film is filled with effective visualizations like this, and they go a long way to putting us in the mind of a deeply disturbed man.
The cast is effective, but largely unremarkable. Samuel Hunt certainly brings out the repressed vulnerability of Louis Zamperini, but lacks the intensity of Jack O’Connell, who brought an otherworldly focus and resolve to the character in the 2014 film. Zamperini was, after all, an Olympic runner, whose endurance allowed him to survive under extraordinary circumstances. That aspect of the character is largely absent from Hunt’s performance. Merritt Patterson fares slightly better as Cynthia, a young woman enamored of this national hero, before realizing just how much baggage he brings to the relationship. She plays Cynthia as an intensely pragmatic woman, aware of just how patient she is capable of being, and exactly when that patience will run out. It is a strong performance, though doesn’t quite measure up to similar characters, such as Jennifer Connolly in A Beautiful Mind.
The supporting cast does its job well, with reliable character actors Bob Gunton and Gary Cole adding some nice pedigree to the proceedings. Special mention should also be made of Bobby Campo, who plays Pete Zamperini, Lou’s older brother. Like Cynthia, Pete is loving and patient, but maintains a watchful eye as his brother begins to deteriorate. It is an important role, and Campo plays it well.
I cannot, however, get on board with the casting of Will Graham, here playing his own grandfather, Billy Graham. Towards the end of the film, Zamperini grudgingly attends a tent revival led by Graham and feels a deep conviction, eventually leading him to Christianity. With the stakes this high, it’s important that Billy Graham be portrayed by somebody able to replicate his trademark charisma. Sadly, Will Graham is not the man to do this. His efforts to appear passionate actually begin to morph into what appears to be hucksterism. It is not at all uncommon for faith-based films to include notable Christian personalities into their movies, but it was a very bad decision here, and the film suffers for it at a particularly vital part of the story.
Despite some rather glaring flaws, I’d say that Unbroken: Path to Redemption contains more good than bad. Director Harold Cronk’s stylistic flourishes only occasionally enhance the story, but they rarely impede the telling of it. The resulting film is competent and sometimes compelling. It certainly could have – and should have – been done better by more accomplished filmmakers, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very watchable adaptation of a remarkable story.