Film Review: Unbroken: Path to Redemption

A preachy, perfunctory postscript to Angelina Jolie’s 2014 bombastic biopic of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic-sized survivor of World War II, emerges from the unused, generally uninteresting portion of Laura Hillenbrand’s epic best-seller.
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In war as well as peace, the extraordinary, action-packed life of Louie Zamperini—the Olympic runner who survived repeated ordeals in World War II (an air crash at sea, 47 days adrift on a life raft and “rescue” by the Japanese who tortured him for the next two years)—resembles, and plays like, an unbroken cluster of war-movie clichés.

Laura Hillenbrand’s 530-page account of all the above—Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption—was brought robustly to the screen by director Angelica Jolie simply as Unbroken. Hers was a swift charge across familiar screen turf—sort of a Captain Eddie hops the Memphis Belle and a Lifeboat to the River Kwai,where he is brain-scrambled by The Manchurian Candidate-in-residence.

Now comes, with a vengeance, Redemption—a still, small voice of a sequel that is called (so you won’t get lost) Unbroken: Path to Redemption. This would be the passive, pacifistic part of the program where our survivor (don’t call him a hero) saves his soul by converting his pent-up revenge for his sadistic captor into universal forgiveness. The study guide for this extra inning is The Best Years of Our Lives and Till the End of Time, with side orders of The Outsider and Faith of Our Fathers.

Turning revenge into redemption is no chore for the average man. Fact is (literally), this is a job for Billy Graham. It seems Zamperini caught one of his evangelical crusades in 1949 and came away a new man, free of psyche-numbing booze and those nagging nights of PTSD fits, wearing a beatific smile on his face for (presumably) the whole human race. The person who accomplishes this remarkable transformation onscreen happens to be the grandson of the man who actually did it: Will Graham, tipping a conspicuous weakening of the charisma strain in the process.

It is here that director Harold Cronk, who helms the “God’s Not Dead” TV series, shows a heavy hand and lets lots of Sunday School shine in—so much so it blinds you to the possibility that something unexpected or non-formulaic could happen to our survivor.

Samuel Hunt has the lean, athletic frame that better suggests Zamperini than his Jolie-boy predecessor, Jack O’Connell, did. You believe this guy, in his high-school heyday, was known along the California tracks as “the Torrance Tornado.” The Olympic training that followed came in handy, helping him get through World War II.

Jolie’s flick zips by at the beginning like the intro to an old Flash Gordon serial. Then Part II begins—at V-J Day. Residual guilt for surviving “Part I” makes Zamperini pretty much of a dark cloud at his family gatherings. That worsens considerably when he is tapped to parade his medals on war-bond tours. Like Ira Hayes, he drinks himself into unemployment as he flip-flops from one menial job to another.

Enter the love of a good woman (Merritt Patterson), who stabilizes him long enough to start a family and find some semblance of normalcy. That crumbles when his Olympic hopes are again dashed, and he makes a beeline for the bottle. Paging Rev. Graham.

All of this is played out competently by a workmanlike, no-name cast, against  production values that have the passable spit ’n’ polish of a professional venture. If only this Path to Redemption didn’t lead to so many places where we’ve been before.