Overheard at the Movies: Will Unbroken Inspire You to “Hate Your Enemies”?

Overheard at the Movies: Will Unbroken Inspire You to “Hate Your Enemies”? December 23, 2014

Unbroken-movie-posterHow many movies that promise to “inspire” you actually inspire you?

I don’t mean “Do they make you feel good?” Inspiration changes people. It motivates them. It spurs them into action.

In my experience at the movies, 9 out of 10 that promise they will be “inspiring” … aren’t inspiring. (It may be closer to 99 out of 100.) Films that are marketed that way usually conform to simple storytelling formulas about determination and the power of “the human spirit,” mining for meaning no more deeply or substantially than feel-good commercials for Levi’s Jeans or Ford Trucks.

I don’t know about you, but most of these stories ring false to me.

(What’s more, the standard “inspirational music” that flows through most American dramas like corn syrup through our foods has become so ubiquitous, so insistent, so oppressive, that I feel an immediate surge of resistance when I hear it. Only mediocre artists tell us what to feel by pouring on predictable soundtrack flourishes. Great artists allow us to be surprised by our own emotions rather than dictating what those emotions must be.)

When I face challenges, I find that relying on my own resources, trying to “be all that I can be,” results in disappointment. I’ve found that real strength comes from something beyond mere determination, mere self-reliance. And it certainly doesn’t come from some vaguely defined, generic “faith.”

My strength and hope grows not from trying to endure or overcome suffering, but rather from meeting Christ within suffering and inviting him to transform it, from knowing that he is close to me in that place, that he suffers with me there in order to show me what is possible there. I’m inspired by his promises, which hold true: No amount of suffering will separate us from God’s love, and thus we have nothing to fear. We cannot be lost. My aim is not to triumph over my enemies with my willpower, but to imitate Christ by showing them love even as they inflict suffering. We can find the grace to do that, you and I, when we remember and embrace the reality that the enemies of God are already defeated; the death with which they threaten us has no “sting.” We can remain humble, faithful, and willing to suffer for the truth, assured that union with God in glory is possible now, here, even in prison, even in torture, even in death. And that the joy of union with God will be fully realized by passing through death, not by escaping it.

I hope, then, that you’ll understand what I mean when I say that I’m finding it difficult to be excited about the film called Unbroken.

I do not mean that I disrespect the story itself, or its subject. The book that Lauren Hildebrand has written, and the story which she has captured (the story of a man whose trials and sufferings where transformed by an encounter with the Gospel through Billy Graham), are clearly powerful, having moved and inspired readers everywhere, including people very close to me. But the trailer for the film and the words used to market it are too generic, too familiar, too focused on a sort of Iron Man Marathon response to physical calamities and challenges. They suggest a reduction of Zamperini’s story to a real-life episode of Survivor: Will he be strong enough to endure? (This was largely my objection to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which threatened to reduce Jesus’ triumph to a sort of Marshwn Lynch #BeastMode charge through a variety of physical ordeals. Look at him go! He can take anything you throw at him!)

And the reviews of Unbroken that I’m reading seem to suggest the same thing. The film critics I find most reliable have expressed disappointment with the movie. And religious-press reviewers, to whom the film was aggressively marketed, are agreeing that — in spite of Zamperini’s involvement with the production — this movie is missing the beating heart of the true story that inspired readers everywhere in ways that amounted to more than an emotional “You can do it!”  They are quick to point out that Zamperini’s conversion to Christianity is reduced to a footnote.

Alissa Wilkinson at Christianity Today finds much to admire about the film. But when we get down to what matters most, she writes,

[Unbroken is] being billed as an “inspirational” film, but the most important scene—the image that’s being used on movie posters—crystallizes what gets Zamperini through his ordeal. It isn’t faith—that comes later. Rather, it’s a sort of grit-your-teeth endurance borne out of hatred for your enemy. It comes from being so determined to master your enemy that you manage to perform great feats of will and strength and outlast him. This is made explicit in comments from one of the film’s characters, and it goes unchallenged throughout the film.

On top of that, when it comes to this story, the game is rigged: the title is Unbroken, the story is widely known, and plus, we know who wins this war. So the whole time you’re rooting for the character, and the country, while knowing he’ll win in the end and his captors will be disgraced, and it’s hard to suppress schadenfreude-by-proxy when the unmitigatedly bad guy comes to a bad end and is disgraced.

So what I fear is that audiences will watch the film and walk away saying to one another, “Wasn’t that inspiring?”—without asking, what did it inspire you to?

The story of resilience and outlasting and will and determination is scored and shot, acted and directed and sometimes visually striking, and what it inspires you to do is hate your enemies so hard that you can prove you’re better by them by making it past the finish line.

At Relevant Magazine, in a review that (strangely) isn’t credited to any writer in particular, there is a similar tone of disappointment:

… the scriptwriters confuse the parts of Zamperini’s journey. By making the prison camp his lowest point instead of the depression and bitterness that plagued him upon his return, the story’s narrative arc gets thrown off. Zamperini’s journey didn’t end when he was saved from the Japanese. It ended when he was saved from himself, some years later.

… [T]he story ultimately stumbles at the finish line, regulating Zamperini’s conversion and redemption to the closing credits instead of the ultimate plot resolution.

… This point was raised to Jolie at a press conference RELEVANT attended, where she defended her decision saying, “We made it universal, not specific to one faith. And that was something that was agreed upon with Louie,” she said.

“He said he wanted the message to reach everyone. He said to make faith and forgiveness universal.”

Zamperini’s son, Luke, also expressed his approval of how the film handled his father’s faith.

That is all respectfully noted. And we understand the filmmaker’s dilemma here. But the desire to make this faith story universal also rendered it a bit toothless—giving it a broad appeal without giving it much depth.

Here’s David Ehrlich at Little White Lies:

By the time Unbroken limps towards the finish line, director Angelina Jolie has convincingly made the case that a dozen great movies could be made about the extraordinary life of Louis “Louie” Zamperini.  The folly of this bland and broadly forgettable version is that it tries to be all of them.

Everything about Unbroken (including Alexandre Desplat’s score, stirring but out of place) is tilted towards making Zamperini’s life feel like the incredible journey that it was, but in reducing such an unfathomable story into a basic narrative of triumph, Jolie’s film ultimately makes it feel… ordinary.

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  • BHG

    “This was largely my objection to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which threatened to reduce Jesus’ triumph to a sort of Marshwn Lynch #BeastMode charge through a variety of physical ordeals. Look at him go! He can take anything you throw at him!”

    I see your point, but in some ways that IS the point of the Passion (with tip of the hat to Fr Barron who first brought this idea up for me): that God entered human life and let all the violence and aggression and sin of the world break over Him without responding in kind. The movie just didn’t go far enough: the missing scene is the Upper Room, where God returns to man–those who betrayed Him and abandoned Him and in a very real sense killed Him–and his first words were not recrimination but “Peace…”
    Believers can supply the scene, of course, those who are not Christian are not likely to see it or understand it. And it is because we meet Jesus in suffering–as you point out–that we can let sin and violence break over us, too and respond in love.

    Easy to say, hard to experience, harder to imitate. But true, I think.

    Thoughtful post. Thanks.

  • jbdavis

    We all have to use a certain amount of discrimination in evaluating reviews, movie messages, and the like. And we can’t see everything because there is only so much time. Obviously.

    But I’ve noticed in the past year or so that you seem to have a growing tendency to lay down a personal movie-going mantra, declare your intentions without having seen a film and then quote a few critics in support.

    I get it. But it makes me long for the days of Roger Ebert, who would just go see a movie and let himself be surprised sometimes at how it was different from what he could predict from trailers, reviews, and personal motivations. He had to see every movie because it was his job. But I also got the idea that he would have seen tons of movies anyway just because he was open to the experience, even when he was considered the “godfather” of film critics.

    Whether you agreed with Ebert or not, at least he kept his expectations to himself and then just gave us his honest opinion after having seen it.

    Would this movie disappoint you? Maybe. However, it might surprise you in other respects. This troubling pattern means that you won’t ever know.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      I have a full-time job that has nothing to do with movies, music, or this blog. I’m also in graduate school now.

      This has meant that I have to alter my approach to blogging. It also means I have very little time at all for movies.

      So I depend on the perspectives of critics I admire and respect. What’s more, I want to support their work and bring attention to their perspectives. Rather than just post links, I sometimes want to raise questions or share what informs my selectivity, and how trends in everything from filmmaking to film-marketing influence my decisions.

      I watch “tons of movies” that I’ve heard mixed reviews about. I haven’t said anything here that means I won’t ever see Unbroken. I’m just saying that the reviews of my trusted colleagues are preventing me from getting excited about this one, and they’re inclining me to prioritize other films. For now.

      Maybe someday someone will step up to support me in a way that allows me to return to a more comprehensive kind of film reviewing, like I used to do. But for now, this is how I contribute to the conversation and support the reviewers whose perspectives and contribution are enriching my life and carrying on the work that I used to have the resources and freedom to do.


      For seven years, I wrote a column for Christianity Today called Film Forum, in which I featured excerpts from, and links to, some of the most interesting and provocative reviews of almost every film opening week by week. It was surprisingly popular, and when I moved on from CT, I began featuring posts like that here in order to introduce readers to perspectives on films for which I didn’t have the time or resources to see and review myself.

      I keep that going from time to time. These recent “Overheard” and “Looking Closer at ____” posts are a way to keep that tradition going.

      Believe me, I’d like nothing better than to do more film criticism of my own. Writing reviews, teaching, and speaking on the subject of art is what people tell me I do best, and while that’s great to hear — I do love those things — it’s also a little frustrating, because I am still searching for a way to do those things and also pay the rent. Until I do, I’ll have to be content with scribbling out fragmented notes on art and faith in the snippets that qualify as “spare time.”

      • Lars

        Whenever a movie comes out that I really want to see, the first thing I do is look at the composite score on Rotten Tomatoes, focusing more on the score of the Top Critics, and that’s it. I don’t read a single review, not matter how much I love and agree with a particular critic because I want that experience to reasonably fresh and unencumbered by expectation. If that film gets 13%, I may wait awhile to see it but if it gets 99% like Boyhood did, I will see it as soon as I possibly can (and see favorably-reviewed films that weren’t on my radar such as Birdman). Everyone brings their own unique bias to a film, including my all-time fave, Ebert, but the critics I most admire acknowledge that upfront and are usually pretty good about giving films their due. That’s why I LOVE reading their reviews after I’ve seen the movie so that their biases don’t color my real-time experience.

        I understand that you have limited time and resources and these reviews help you allocate those resources more wisely but I would feel somewhat cheated either way – either having my expectations completely confirmed or having them wildly unmet. My favorite thing about attending Sundance and Telluride when they were relatively unknown was that you had no idea what you were in for – a classic, utter drivel, or, more often, something forgettably in between – but my sense of excitement was exactly the same every time the lights went down. I can no longer afford that luxury but I can still get to the cineplex on occasion and by remaining as blissfully ignorant as possible, I can still approach that big-screen movie with a similar excitement. And I can still be just as let down, but that’s part of the experience too and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

        I hope you give Unbroken, a narrative thrice removed from its own reality, a chance to rise or fall on its own merits and and give us a full accounting of that experience here at Looking Closer. And fwiw, I enjoy reading your blog so much that I have it delivered to my Inbox daily and greatly appreciate your reviewing efforts here at Patheos.