NEW YORK (RNS) Director Angelina Jolie defended her decision to portray a “universal” faith in her upcoming film “Unbroken,” saying she took her cues from the evangelical World War II hero whose harrowing tale is the basis of her film.
“Unbroken” features the real-life story of Louis Zamperini, who endured a plane crash in the Pacific, 47 days adrift at sea and two years as a Japanese prisoner of war.
In the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand of the same name, Zamperini’s story reaches its climax when he embraces Christianity at a Billy Graham crusade in 1949 and finds the ability to forgive his captors.
Jolie’s depiction of a what some might see as generic faith prompted mixed early reviews of the film and led some to ask whether Christian fans of the book would leave the theater disappointed.
“We made it universal, not specific to one faith, and that was something that was agreed upon with Louie,” Jolie told reporters on Friday (Dec. 5). “He said he wanted the message to reach everyone. He said to make faith and forgiveness universal.”
Jolie, who directed the film, argued that the film does not neglect portrayals of faith.
“He said this is about reaching everyone, this should speak to everyone, and we were very clear on his parents’ faith, they being Catholic. … We’re very clear on him praying,” she said. “If you were looking for symbolism and miracles in the film, you will see them.”
The World War II epic, set to release on Christmas Day, does not mention Graham but ends with a brief mention of Zamperini’s promise to serve God. Zamperini died last summer at age 97.
At a separate news conference here, Zamperini’s two children told reporters they were pleased with Jolie’s approach. His son, Luke Zamperini, said Hillenbrand’s book was powerful because it was not a Christian book.
“The film, I think, portrays beautifully his faith throughout,” the younger Zamperini said. “The message is there, and it’s there in a way that’s going to get people to think, to find out for themselves exactly what this means. This is the way my father also presented the gospel to people. He just told a story and let them come up with their own conclusions.”
Zamperini’s daughter, Cynthia Garris, said that if Jesus came up in the film, people might not want to see it, so the strategy was to try to attract as many people as possible.
“If they wanted to know more about how he got through it, how he survived it, they could investigate it,” she said. “He never wanted to preach at them but live the example. It was absolutely sanctioned by him. This is what he told us he wanted.”
Garris recalled that while shooting in New South Wales, Australia, Jolie sought a miracle when a lingering storm threatened to disrupt a critical scene.
“She said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, so I’ll do what Louie would do.’ She got on her knees, she demonstrated for us … and she prayed for a miracle. … Everybody saw it,” Garris said. “It stopped raining. The sun came out, a rainbow came out. She said, ‘Let’s get this take.’ They shot the take. When she said, ‘Cut,’ it started to rain again.”
Garris said her father’s ability to reach people touched Jolie, a self-professed agnostic.
“She was moved by my father’s faith to try that, and that’s what he wants for people to get from the movie,” Garris said. “I’ll tell you, when my father died we were all with him in the hospital. (Jolie) came about 45 minutes later and she was pointing above saying, ‘I know he’s with us. I know he’s there with God.’ And he even moved her. I think maybe in God’s plan for Angelina, she was supposed to find Louie and make this movie to find her way to a life that would encompass the Almighty.”
Jolie said she intentionally made the film PG-13 so it could be one her sons could see.
“It’s a movie for everybody,” Jolie said. “I want my children to know about men like Louis, so when they feel bad about themselves and they think all is lost, they know they’ve got something inside of them because this is what that story speaks to. You don’t have to be a perfect person, or a saint, or a hero. Louis was very flawed, very human, but made great choices.”