There’s something about Louie

We went to see the film Unbroken on Christmas day at a suburban St. Paul multiplex. We arrived punctually for the first afternoon showing only to find that it had long since sold out, as had each subsequent showing until 10:30 p.m. They had a few tickets left for that one, but we bought two tickets for a mid-afternoon showing yesterday.

It also sold out. Indeed, although we arrived 40 minutes early, a long line of patrons inside the theater was waiting to be seated for our showing and the theater suspected some of us of sneaking in with tickets for other movies. As some relative latecomers struggled to find seats just before the movie was scheduled to begin, a theater employee asked all of us who were already seated to pull our tickets for inspection. Even before the movie began we had already had a rich theatergoing experience.

Like the book, the film tells the utterly amazing, almost unbelievable story of Louie Zamperini, who died earlier this year at the age of 97. The movie is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s wildly best-selling book, now in paperback and in an adaptation for young adults. I wrote about it in “The improbable lives of Louis Zamperini.”

Zamperini’s story is one of family, love, suffering, physical skill and athletic competition, country, war, suffering, survival, cruelty, survival, suffering, and, finally faith and triumph over suffering. The survival story is, as I say, almost beyond belief, as is the suffering he endured. I have never read a book so full of suffering.

Louie survived in part through indomitable will and finally through his faith, but Louie’s life was saved many times before the triumph over his suffering. Among those who saved his life were his brother, his pilot on one of his doomed WW II missions, President Truman (in ordering the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki inducing Japan’s surrender just before Louie would have died in the prison camp), his wife and, perhaps most strikingly, Billy Graham. Truman, Louie’s wife Cynthia, and Billy Graham are shortchanged by the film. If you’ve read the book you’ll want to see the movie, but please do read the book.

The movie tells Louie’s story essentially up to his return home at the end of the war. It leaves off the last part of the book in which Louie gets married and sinks into the depths of drunkenness and despair. It therefore leaves off the conversion to Christianity that saved his marriage from divorce. It was his conversion that also rescued him from drunkenness and from the suffering inflicted by the nightmares that drove him to drink. The film purports to cover Louie’s postwar story in a cursory written postscript that studiously avoids the details Hillenbrand diligently uncovered and vividly conveyed.

Nevertheless, Louie’s spirit shines through. Insofar as it covers Louie’s story, it does a good job of depicting it. Actor Jack O’Connell is a wonderful Louie.

This is not meant to be a review of the film. I’d have more to say if it were. This is meant to be a review of the audience for the film. I could and should have made this point about the success of the book, which reflects the phenomenon we saw at the theater this week.

There is something about Louie. He had something we are hungering for in the the Age of Obama.

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