Unbroken is a well-produced film that tells the story of World War II survivor Louis Zamperini. Zamperini survived crashing in the Pacific, interminable weeks lost at sea, and the terrors of several Japanese POW camps. Unfortunately, the equally remarkable third act of his life is reduced to a footnote on screen. After being rescued from internment at war’s end, Zamperini spiraled into inconsolable depression, vengefulness, and alcoholism before being spiritually rescued at a Billy Graham “revival”. With the third act missing, as it stands, the movie is false. The number one thing a movie owes us, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, is truth. And Zamperini was in fact not unbroken, but broken. Then, in his brokenness, he was put back together again. In spite of the onscreen epigraph, in so reducing the depth of his brokenness and salvation — not by himself, but by another — the film is not “a true story”. Some ambiguity in the title, “Unbroken”, does, however, permit a truer sense. In the same sense that something done might be undone; Zamperini was broke, and then unbroke. He was restored, reborn, healed … unbroken. Filmmakers deserve a great degree of creative license in turning a story into a screenplay, but the thing they should not do is fundamentally change the meaning of a person’s life. Unbroken is almost entirely a story of human triumph and resilience, and barely gestures at the true story of human brokenness, neediness, and repentance. It is the latter that moved Zamperini to return to Japan to reconcile with his former captors. It is the latter that has the strength to unbreak what has been broken.
Recently a number of philosophically arresting moments have managed to insert themselves into the television landscape. True to form, Ronald D. Moore and company continue to address contemporary political, philosophical, and religious questions in the alternate world of Caprica, territory he brilliantly charted in his groundbreaking Battlestar Galactica. If the pilot is any indication, Caprica promises to explore even more pointedly themes of religious and ethnic tolerance, terrorism, technology, and the nature of the soul. ABC’s FlashForward, clearly aimed at continuing the legacy of Lost and retaining its audience, has somewhat disappointed so far, but has nonetheless woven several provocative existential questions into its narrative, including one powerful Sartrean moment in particular. On the comedic front, NBC’s Community had the temerity to devote an episode to whether humanity is intrinsically good or evil, and did so superbly. I’ll admit to being prone to vegging in front of the tube even when the viewing is less cerebral, but a couple of these moments had me off the couch cheering for the writers.
Into the ever-expanding catalog1 of films predicated on our anxiety about the extent of our free will, enter The Adjustment Bureau, perhaps the most cerebral and ambivalent of the lot. The film envisions a world in which human action is directed, though not quite determined, by a confluence of chance, free will, and the nearly ubiquitous superintendency of “The Chairman”, a quasi-religious, mysterious power that influences human actions through the intervention of a minion of “clerks” who alter circumstances (and occasionally thought patterns) in order to keep the course of human events in line with “The Plan”. This is not, as some have supposed, a film about human pawns and a grandmaster who determines their fate. Rather, The Adjustment Bureau explores how the course of human events might be guided or “nudged” by such a master when the chess pieces themselves are free agents pursuing their own ends. As it turns out, this decidedly more difficult endeavor requires constant “caretaking” or “meddling”. The film itself remains surprisingly ambivalent toward this state of affairs and offers a provocative and nuanced picture of human agency, of our wills as simultaneously malleable and free. Indeed, the various kinds of interventions in The Adjustment Bureau provide a backdrop for considering just what should and should not be considered a violation of the will. Finally, though it wisely avoids any explicit religious references, the film portrays a world that bears a striking resemblance to a particular theological proposal regarding the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free will, namely open theism.
Cameron wrote Avatar, says Podhoretz, “not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.” What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts. Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We live in an age in which it’s the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion. If the Na’Vi were Roman Catholics, there would be boycotts and protests. Make the oversized Smurfs Rousseauian noble savages and everyone nods along, save for a few cranky right-wingers. I’m certainly one of those cranky right-wingers, though I probably enjoyed the movie as cinematic escapism as much as the next guy. But what I find interesting about the film is how what is “pleasing to the most people” is so unapologetically religious.
If you consider a wide sampling of the reactions to Bill Maher’s and Larry Charles’ Religulous, two distinct themes emerge. On the one hand, reviewers consistently note that the filmmakers were deliberately manipulative in their survey of religion: in whom they chose to interview and feature, in asking baited questions, and finally, in their merciless splicing and dicing in the editing room. And so, not surprisingly, religious people come off as goofy, gullible, and worse. On the other hand, a number of reviewers note what they take to be an earnest search by Maher to understand people of faith. As Maher puts it himself at the outset, his quest is to understand how otherwise intelligent and rational people can continue to believe in fantasies like talking snakes and a virgin birth. It’s a worthwhile question, and there are moments in the film when Maher displays some genuine curiosity about it. Nonetheless, these two observations about Religulous are incompatible. And regrettably, by the end, it is clear that Maher and Charles set out not on a quest for understanding, but rather to proof-text their presumptions. Religulous is funny enough, and at times thought provoking. On the whole, however, Religulous is a “mockumentary”. A hit-piece. It is a quest that begins with a predetermined destination in mind and manages to arrive there by scrupulously avoiding any detours that might have derailed the script.
People who only want unbiased, honest science education that sticks to the evidence are bewildered by the reception they get when they try to make their case. Their specific points are brushed aside, and they are dismissed out of hand as religious fanatics. The newspapers report that “creationists” are once again trying to censor science education because it offends their religious beliefs. Why is it so hard for reasoned criticism of biased teaching to get a hearing? The answer to that question begins with a Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play called Inherit the Wind, which was made into a movie in 1960 starring Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly and Frederic March. You can rent the movie at any video store with a “classics” section, and I urge you to do so and watch it carefully… The play is a fictionalized treatment of the “Scopes Trial” of 1925, the legendary courtroom confrontation in Tennessee over the teaching of evolution. Inherit the Wind is a masterpiece of propaganda, promoting a stereotype of the public debate about creation and evolution that gives all virtue and intelligence to the Darwinists. The play did not create the stereotype, but it presented it in the form of a powerful story that sticks in the minds of journalists, scientists and intellectuals generally…
Mel Gibson’s Braveheart won five academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Most people would assume that Gibson’s character, William Wallace, about whom the movie was named, was the movie’s central character. Was he?