Angelina Jolie presents a beautifully intimate account of the life of American Olympic athlete and hero, Louis Zamperini, a prisoner of war during the Second World War. Recalling his tales of the 5,000 metre race at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to the unimaginable suffering endured in Japanese prison Kwajelein – or “Execution Island” – Zamperini’s spirit shines through the voice of a woman deeply touched by his warmth.
This timely tribute marks Zamperini’s passing in July, as well as the lead up the upcoming film Unbroken, an adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand 2010 book on Zamperini’s life due for release at Christmas, starring Jack O’Connell. Directed by Jolie, the project stemmed from her captivation with the immense gravity of the story, and led to a personal friendship with Zamperini.
It is almost a shame to not be able to see Jolie smile as she contemplates his character and the many lessons she has learned from simply knowing him. She does not profess to understand the horror of Zamperini’s experiences, but relays in great depth all he has shared. His survival of a plane crash, while searching for a missing aircraft south of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, led to a forty-seven-day stretch afloat at sea on a small life raft. His subsequent capture by the Japanese Navy, resulting in barbaric treatment at the hands of psychopathic prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe, continued to test his spirit. Had news of the imminent Japanese defeat not reached the prison by 15 August 1945, it is unlikely that Zamperini would have survived for much longer.
The programme explores the long-term effects of Zamperini’s imprisonment, subject to daily torture in hellish conditions, leaving him haunted by the faces of his captors and plagued with nightmares. It was not until he decided to seek reconciliation, gathering his faith to meet and personally forgive the prison guards of his captivity, that he could move beyond his suffering.
and in turn, inspire the world.
Jolie’s conversation with Dr Uta Balbier, Director and Lecturer in the Institute of North American Studies at King’s College London, with input from other historians presents a compelling, influential summary of Zamperini’s message and the context of his time. As veterans of war pass away each year, we are reminded of the value of the stories of a unique generation, whose resilience conquered even the darkest corners of their existence.
Just as Zamperini was able to carry the torch at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, with Japanese soldiers looking on and cheering, his capacity to forgive inspired Jolie to an unprecedented degree as she delved in to the heart of his unbroken spirit.