Drowning Man: a Review of “Unbroken”

“Where’s Watanabe?” Louis Zamperini asks of an American officer standing next to him. Kneeling on the floor in front of them are several dozen haggard Japanese men, guards from the prison camp where Zamperini had been held, harassed, and tortured by one particular guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe.

So begins director Harold Cronk’s Unbroken: Path to Redemption, a prequel to Angelina Jolie’s 2014 film of author Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book about Olympic runner Zamperini’s experiences as a WWII POW in Japan. The film’s main title card says: “A True Story.” Well, maybe so by Hollywood standards, but whereas Zamperini would return to Japan to seek out Watanabe, he did not do so circa 1950 as the film suggests.

Louis Zamperini was raised in California (Torrance) by very Catholic parents, immigrants from Verona. In high school, he took up running, at one point setting the world scholastic record for the mile. At the Olympic Trials in 1936, he tied for first in the 5,000-meter race and headed to the Games in Berlin, where he finished eighth.

In World War II, he became an Army Air Force bombardier and ended up surviving a 1943 crash in the Pacific Ocean, floating on a raft for forty-seven days before being captured by the Japanese.

Cronk’s movie picks up Zamperini’s story after his return to the United States, and production designer Mayne Berke has given Torrance (and Florida and Tokyo) excellent period looks.

Would there were a similar level of achievement in the script by Richard Friedenberg and Ken Hixon. The first hour of the film is a clichéd rehash of other movies about a soldier’s traumatic return from war. Even the tagline is hackneyed: “When the war ended, his battle began.”

That battle included the hallucinations, depression, and alcoholism that have often haunted soldiers with what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. In dreaming and even in waking, the specter of Watanabe ceaselessly harasses Louie – right up until the moment Zamperini gives himself to Jesus.

The Zamperinis were Catholic, and in an early scene the parish priest arrives at the family home to add his welcome to that of everybody else in town.

“It’s a miracle you survived,” he says.

“Miracles didn’t save my tail feathers, Padre, a couple of atomic bombs did that!”

“Don’t discount God’s role in your journey.”

“Don’t worry,” Louie replies sarcastically, “I give Him all the blame.”

The priest’s assurances of God’s innocence don’t convince Louie.

Sectarian matters should not affect a film review, but screening it during Catholicism’s Summer of Shame, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been had somebody from the Church made more strenuous spiritual efforts on Zamperini’s behalf. But it devolved to none other than the Rev. Billy Graham to be the voice through which this emotionally scarred veteran heard Christ’s call.

Indeed, when any cinematic soldier staggers drunkenly out of a bar and vomits while being soaked to the bone in a driving rain . . . well, you know he’s mere days (or minutes in screen time) away from being born again, as, indeed, Zamperini was – at a 1949 Graham crusade in Los Angeles. (Had he returned to Catholicism, there would have been church bells.)

As Zamperini stands outside Rev. Graham’s Chautauqua-style tent and the choir sings “What a friend we have in Jesus,” the movie undergoes its own revival, finally surrendering to the power of God’s call. “There’s a drowning man here tonight,” Graham says, which is exactly how Louie sees himself.

I’m not being cynical. Unbroken: Path to Redemption is a sweet but very low-energy film until this very moment. Then it’s electric.

Samuel Hunt as Zamperini and Merritt Patterson as Cynthia, Louie’s wife, are good young actors, who handle well the romantic (albeit very chaste) love story that is the film’s main subplot, and they guide the film as it stumbles sleepily until the revival revives it – 75 minutes in.

As I watched this climax, I was struck by how much the actor playing Graham looked and sounded like him. It was almost unsettling – so much so that I paused the screener to look at biographies of the cast.

The “actor” is Rev. Will Graham, i.e. William Franklin Graham IV, the grandson of Billy and son of Franklin. He’s not quite a dead ringer for his famous grandfather (he seems not as tall or thin) but close enough to be uncanny. Rev. Graham IV is actually a pretty good actor, except he isn’t acting.

Unbroken: Path to Redemption delivers a prodigious Protestant punch at the end, and more power to our post-Reformation brethren. I have no doubt some Catholics may find their ways under that tent these days, a time when the Church of Rome seems as corrupt as it did in the 16thcentury.

Now, about Zamperini’s real trip back to Japan:

It came ahead of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. Zamperini went both to carry the Olympic flame and to be reunited with Watanabe – to offer forgiveness. But the 80-year-old Watanabe, a bitter-ender if ever there was one, refused to see him and never acknowledged any wartime criminality. Indeed, he was never prosecuted, although Douglas MacArthur had placed his name on a list of war criminals.

The film’s end – not its climax, which is the revival – is a repeat of that opening scene: “Where’s Watanabe?” I suppose if Mr. Zamperini, who died in 2014, had lived a few more years he might himself have book-ended the film much as actor Harrison Young did in Saving Private Ryan, playing Ryan (Matt Damon) as an old man returned to Normandy.

And it seems to me Unbroken: Path to Redemption might have doubled-down on its closing power had an elderly actor had been cast to play Zamperini, seeking reconciliation with his captor fifty years on. How marvelous it could have been to see an elderly Japanese actor play the unrepentant Watanabe; yang, so to speak, to Louie’s yin, the paradox of humanity – a truly true story.


Unbroken: Path to Redemption is rated PG-13, I assume for flashback scenes of Zamperini suffering under Watanabe.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.