Laura Hillenbrand published the life story of Louie Zamperini in November of 2010. It has remained on the best sellers list since its publication. People have fallen in love with the story of resilience and redemption of a juvenile delinquent who grows up to be an Olympic athlete and a POW during the latter stages of World War II.
Angelina Jolie directs the movie version of the story and it offers some important insights and lessons for our current moral debate.
The movie is told in a non-linear form. It begins during the war years but flashes back to the boyhood days of Louie (Jack O’Connell). During his childhood and early teen years, Louie stole, drank, smoked and fought. He stayed in trouble with his parents and the law. What saves him from a life of crime is his brother, Pete (Alex Russell). Pete encourages Louie to take his anger and rage out on the track. In time, Louie becomes a world class athlete. He is so good he competes at the 1938 Olympics.
Louie sets a goal of competing in the 1942 Olympics in Tokyo, but the war puts an end to that dream. He becomes a bomber during the war and he is part of the Pacific theater of operations.
While on a rescue mission, the plane flown by his crew develops mechanical problems and crashes into the ocean. The only survivors are Louie, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock).
These three remain adrift in a life raft for many weeks. They battle the elements, the sharks, themselves, and even an enemy plane. Finally they are rescued by a Japanese war vessel.
Louie and Phil are taken to a prisoner of war camp and placed in isolation. The only time they are brought out is when the Japanese want information from them. Beatings and torture are the means of discovering the information.
Later they are separated and taken to different camps in Japan. Louie ends up in a camp with a vicious corporal called The Bird (Takamasa Ishihara), who constantly beats the prisoners, especially Louie. He is cruel and unpredictable.
Eventually, the Allies get closer to the prisoner camp. Louie and his fellow prisoners are moved to a coal station, where they move coal from a ship to rail cars, all by hand.
Because the story of Louie Zamperini is so expansive, a choice had to be made about the focus. The screenplay only focuses on Louie’s life during his early days, primarily the war years. An important aspect of his story does not make it to the screen. Louie spends a number of years full of rage over what took place at the hands of The Bird. Later, he became a Christian and learned to forgive those who had done so much harm to him.
This is an aspect of Louie’s story that needed screen time, but it only gets mentioned in the end.
One aspect of the movie that does bear comment is the depiction of the treatment that Louie received as a prisoner. He is beaten and tortured. The movie stands in contrast to what our nation feels about the use of torture on those caught up in the war on terror. A poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News found that 69 percent of white evangelical Christians believe torture of detainees in the war on terror is justified.
While watching this movie I thought of the things done by our nation to those from whom we wanted to get information. I wondered if those who agreed with torture would have a different opinion if they saw what Louie Zamperini and other Americans went through during the Second World War.
One scene in the movie shows a prisoner with no finger nails. He said he lost them because the Japanese wanted information he was not going to give them.
This movie can help us see how fruitless and wrong torture is.
As I heard Japanese soldiers tell our soldiers that they saw them as the enemy and would treat them as such, I wondered: Do we see detainees as nothing more than the enemy which needs to be treated as less than human? Why do we declare ourselves a “Christian nation” yet do things that were done to our prisoners of war, and even the Lord Jesus Christ?
Rated PG-13 for war violence, including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language.
Directed by Angelina Jolie
Written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson
With: Jack O’Connell (Louie Zamperini), Domhnall Gleeson (Phil), Takamasa Ishihara (The Bird), Finn Wittrock (Mac)