unbrokenUnbroken, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-selling non-fiction book, is directed and produced by Angelina Jolie, Clayton Townsend, Matthew Baer and Erwin Stoff with the screenplay written by William Nicholson, Richard LaGravenese and Joel and Ethan Coen. The story is about the infliction of intolerable physical and psychological suffering of Louis Zamperini during his internment in three different Japanese POW camps from May 1943 until August 1945. The cinematography makes viewers air-sick, sea-sick and portrays the bleak conditions that all POWs endured.

Jack O’Connell is cast as Zamperini whose arch rival is played by Takamasa Ishihara as Mutsuhiro Watanabe – a ruthless, privileged, bitter captain known as “the Bird.” The acting is superb as Watanabe considers all POWs an enemy of Japan and tests Zamperini with unconscionable and unforgivable torture in an effort to beat him into submission and strip Zamperini of his will and soul to live. The only aspiration for Zamperini and his fellow POWs is to survive.

But let’s go back to Zamperini’s childhood to better understand his extraordinary internal strength. His parents were first-generation Italians when they settled in Torrance, Calif., wanting to live the American dream and assimilate to American culture. Zamperini was a scrawny kid, picked on by classmates in junior high, calling him the socially unacceptable term Wop. He was indeed a trouble-maker, too. It was his older brother Pete who introduced Zamperini to track and track took Zamperini all the way to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 at age 19. He was considered the fastest high-school runner in the United States and known as the “Torrance Tornado.”

Fast forward to fall 1941 as Zamperini enlists in the Army Air Forces, as a bombardier on B-24s that groaned and belched in flight and felt like they were sitting in their living room trying to fly a house! In May 1943 their Green Hornet B-24 went out on a reconnaissance mission to find a missing plane when two of the four engines failed and they crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Only three survived: Zamperini, Pilot Russell Allen Phillips and Francis McNamara, the tail gunner. They are left with two rafts and minimal rations, cold nights, hot days, horrific storms, sharks circling and banging underneath their rafts, starvation, thirst, pustule boils on their faces, bloated and cracked lips and sheer terror that they would die 2,000 miles from nowhere.

To stay sane and keep their minds sharp, Zamperini described in detail how his mother would cook a recipe, “a sprinkle of this and a dash of that” and then demonstrate how she’d use her hands to knead dough. Indications of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) surfaced with Zamperini in the raft, wondering why they survived the plane crash and the others didn’t. PTSD would follow Zamperini and haunt him for many years to come.

They floated aimlessly for 47 days until one fateful morning when Zamperini said, “I’ve got good news and bad news.” They had been found, but not by the Allied Forces. They were caught by the Japanese Navy and this begins two and a half hellish years as POWs.

Their experience as POWs depicted in this intense movie is not for the faint of heart. It’s gritty, dark and dank, combined with sub-human conditions, as we witness the unspeakable maltreatment of humanity with acts of soulless cruelty, violence and atrocity that undoubtedly left inevitable physical and emotional scars. Zamperini was singled out deliberately by “the Bird” because he was a United States Olympic athlete. It’s a complex “battle of wills” between the two. Zamperini’s torture at the hands of Watanabe seems like deep-seated vendetta, in an attempt to break down Zamperini’s determination with the hopes it would somehow elevate Watanabe’s struggles about his own self-image. Zamperini remained a hero, something Watanabe knew he would never be.

Since Unbroken is a true story, I always want to know what happens afterward. Captain Zamperini returns home to a hero’s welcome in Torrance, marries and suffers terrible bouts of PTSD. It’s not until he is introduced to Billy Graham that Zamperini embraces the concept of forgiveness that proves essential to his healing process. In doing so, Graham encourages Zamperini to forge a new path by sharing his enlightenment about the capacity of human will and grace, as a Christian inspirational speaker. Additionally, Zamperini was awarded The Purple Heart, The Distinguished Flying Cross and the Prisoner of War Medal.

Unbroken is a must-see film, it’s just that simple. Unbroken is a testament to the pureness and resiliency of the human spirit that cannot be broken.

Heidi Nast

Heidi Nast is the Executive Director of the Arts Engagement Foundation of Kansas City and Co-Founder of KC Studio Magazine.

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