Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 17 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 4; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star ratings (1-5): 4
Stretch out your hand from on high;
set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters,
from the hand of aliens,
whose mouths speak lies,
and whose right hands are false.
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
Angelina Jolie’s film, based on “a true story,” could be said to have been over 50 years in the making. This is because Universal Studios acquired the rights to the story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini in 1957 with the intention of actor Tony Curtis playing the part. For whatever reasons, it wasn’t until Ms. Jolie came along that the incredible story of courage and perseverance finally made it to the screen. The resultant film is wonderful, but even at 2 hours and 17 minutes, it tells but two thirds of Zamperini’s story, the last portion dealing with love and forgiveness reduced to a minute or so of a postscript on a black screen and photographs and a film clip of the real athlete. More on this later.
The film starts out with a bang in 1943, detailing the exploits of the B-24 bomber Superman as its crew goes about bombing a Japanese base on a small Pacific island. The plane escapes damage from anti-aircraft flack, but not from a group of Japanese Zeroes that rise to attack the American bombers. The gunners manage to down several of the attackers, but their plane is badly shot up, the bomb-bay doors stuck open, and several crewmembers badly injured by the attackers. The plane limps back to base where the landing almost proves disastrous as the plane slides into a pile of rocks at the end of the tiny airfield.
Later the remaining crew is sent out on a rescue mission in a clunker of a B-24. When its engines fail, the plane crash-lands in the sea. All but three of the eleven-man crew are killed, the exceptions being Zamperini, his pilot Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and a new crewman named Mac (Finn Wittrock). At first trapped inside, Zamperini barely manages to extricate himself and rise to the surface of the sea, where he discovers two inflated life rafts, one of which contains the other two survivors.
During the long ordeal at sea the film switches back and forth to Zamperini’s growing up years. Because of his size and Italian family the boy was bullied at school by his prejudiced classmates. This stopped only when his older brother Pete (Alex Russell) taught him to fight: in one scene we see the undersized lad attacked by several bigger boys and how through his fierce determination he refused to accept their bullying.
A rebel, the boy stole, smoked, and drank, apparently headed for juvenile detention and prison. Again, it was Pete who came to his aid, insisting that he follow him onto the track field. Zamperini become very good at long distance running, even better than his brother by setting a record and being accepted onto the Olympic track team. He did not win the long race (not revealed in the film), but in the last lap he drew on his reserve strength to complete the lap in a record-making 56 seconds. This stirred the interest of the crowd, sports critics, and even Hitler, the latter asking to meet the plucky young runner. (For some reason this potentially dramatic scene was left out of the script.)
The flashbacks are skillfully woven into the scenes of the crash and of the POW camp to which Zamperini and Phil were sent when they were picked up by a Japanese ship. This was after Mac had died, the raft having been punctured in places by the bullets of a Japanese fighter plane strafing them, and their long ordeal of fighting off sharks, and subsisting on caught rainwater and raw fish. During this sequence one of the men makes reference to the ordeal of WW 1 ace Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker whose plane went down in the Pacific the previous October, the surviving crew members drifting for 24 days— Zamperini and Phil were stranded for 47 days in their raft!
When the two survivors are picked up by the Japanese they merely exchange one series of ordeals for another. At the Omori POW camp, when it becomes known that Louie was an Olympic athlete, the commander Mutsushiro “The Bird” Watanabe (played by Japanese singer Miyavi) takes a sadistic interest in him, constantly taunting and hitting him in the face and placing him in a sweatbox.
Zamperini and Phil are transferred to a slave camp near Tokyo where they become part of a vast human machine of carrying coal on their backs. Unfortunately “The Bird” turns up there, continuing his cruel harassment of the American. In the iconic scene revealed in the trailer the dog-tired Zamperini is forced to pick up a heavy beam and lift it over his head. The shadow on the ground looks like the tau cross that scholars say was the kind of cross used by the Romans to crucify Christ and other prisoners. The movie infers that this ordeal took place over hours, though according to the Wikepdia article on Mutsushiro Watanabe it lasted 37 minutes. This is not to disparage the feat–just try to hold such a heavy load for even five minutes over your head. However, it does show that the scriptwriters play a little loose with the facts. Far worse is their downplaying of the spiritual aspect of Zamperini’s story. They do show his desperate life boat prayer in which he bargains with God, promising to give his life to God if they come out alive, but it is not until the end that we learn how the man kept his promise.
The crucifix-like beam holding scene was not to be the worst of tortures inflicted on Zamperini by his tormentor. In an even worst sequence the guard forces all of the prisoners assembled in the courtyard to strike Zamperini in the face. Otherwise he will beat to death another prisoner prostrate before him on the ground. When the prisoners hesitate, Zamperini himself urges them on. We can only marvel at such courage and altruism. The film attributes this to the strong influence of his brother Pete upon him, whose statement, “If you can take it, you can make it,” becomes his motto, but there was actually more than mere human influence upon him.
I wrote above that the script—by veteran writers Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravanese and William Nicholson—covers “but two thirds of Zamperini’s story.” This provides an inspiring tale of human courage and endurance, but there was so much more, condensed to just a few words in the postscript and some photographs and a video clip of the real Zamperini visiting Japan during the 1998 Olympics in Tokyo. (Mention in the film is made that if the War had not cancelled them, Zamperini would have run in the Olympics scheduled for Tokyo.) Following his return to California following the War, Zamperini met and married Cynthia Applewhite, but they did not “live happily ever after.”
Zamperini’s lingering wartime nightmares had led him to excessive drinking, which almost wrecked the marriage. Cynthia’s determination to seek a divorce changed after she became a born again Christian at a Billy Graham rally. She kept after her husband until he also attended a rally. The first visit didn’t “take,” but upon his second visit, he did go forward. He became a religious motivational speaker, some of his appearances being at Billy Graham rallies. He wrote in his own memoirs that as soon as he accepted Christ he forgave his torturers and the nightmares stopped. He threw out his liquor and cigarettes.
Angelina Jolie’s film would have been even more powerful had it continued, even for another 15 or 20 minutes to show this phase of the athlete’s life, because then the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation would have been as strong as that of courage and endurance. The film would have joined two similar ones for which forgiveness is at the heart of the plot, last year’s The Railway Man and 2001’s To End All Wars, both of them also based on a “true story.”
Although I do not subscribe to the Fundamentalist Christians’ claim of a “Hollywood War on Christianity,” I do think there is an unfortunate tendency to water down the faith of characters in order not to offend a secular audience for commercial reasons. The most famous case of this was when novelist John Irving divorced himself from the film adaptation of his best seller A Prayer for Owen Meany because the script left out most of the book’s parallels to Christ of its central character. The studio had to change the name of the main character and the film to Simon Birch. Far worse was Hollywood’s adaptation of Dominique Lapierre’s deeply spiritual novel City of Joy, set in the hellish slum of Calcutta that was ironically named “Anand Nagar.” The book contained two central characters (plus a rickshaw driver), a Polish priest and a Jewish doctor, dedicated to serving the medical needs of the slum dwellers. However, the priest is completely cut out of the film, the film thus losing almost all of the spiritual impact of the book—I have never been so disappointed with a film adaptation.
Anyway, Angelina Jolie’ Zamperini’s story is what we do have, though at least the postscript informs us that upon his return to Japan Zamperini sought out his captors so he could tell them that he had forgiven them. He tried to meet with “The Bird,” but the former guard refused to do so. For me, this is a very flawed film because of its truncated ending, but nonetheless well worth seeing.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the January 2015 issue of Visual Parables.