Of Sinners and Saints: Missing the Point of “Unbroken”

 

This Christmas, Angelina Jolie’s much-hyped adaptation of the best-selling biography Unbroken made it to the big screen. Most of you probably know the story: It traces the remarkable journey of WWII hero Louis Zamperini, as he became a pre-war Olympic athlete, only to be drafted as a pilot and have his plane shot down, only to be captured by the Japanese and tortured in a prison camp. But amazingly, his story didn’t end there, as he went on to have a crisis of faith while grappling with the demons of his war experiences. Through the preaching of Billy Graham, both he and his wife became Christians and launched missions initiatives of their own. Eventually, he met and forgave nearly all of his former Japanese captors face-to-face. Only the most infamously sadistic one, known as “The Bird,” refused to meet him.

Unfortunately, Zamperini’s entire post-war conversion story is relegated to a few title cards at the end of this movie, which ends abruptly with his release and family reunion. While the book on which it’s based doesn’t even go into as much detail as Louis himself in his own memoirs, at least it provides something for the reader. Run-time considerations no doubt played a role, but Hollywood’s aversion to anything openly religious isn’t exactly a secret. Allegedly, Louis himself was pleased with the final cut of the film. His son wrote a recent op-ed saying that the film’s non “preachy” nature was exactly what his dad would have wanted (the idea being that people would be motivated to learn “the rest of the story” for themselves precisely because it’s only hinted at in the film).

Interestingly enough, a number of secular critics disagree. They argue that the film feels hollow and incomplete without these details. By cutting out the messy, sometimes dark and ultimately redemptive arc of Zamperini’s post-war journey, Jolie elevates him to an almost saintly stature. Sure, he starts off as a rakish lad who seems like he could turn into a bit of a troublemaker before his brother inspires him to channel that energy more constructively. But ultimately, Louis can do no wrong. Louis is magnificent. Louis is perfect. And his prison trials are lingered over with Passion-like symbolism. By enshrining Zamperini in this way, Jolie overlooks the flawed man underneath. As a result, the movie misses the whole point of its own hero’s story.

The reality is that Louis Zamperini was a deeply messed-up guy when he came home from the war. And who wouldn’t be? You try getting tortured for several years straight, followed by trying to resume a normal life. Zamperini’s PTSD nightmares were so strong that he would wake up finding himself at his wife’s throat, thinking she was the tormentor of his dreams. Like with many war veterans, Zamperini’s coping mechanisms spiraled into addictions–smoking, drinking, even p*rnography. On top of everything else, his wife was trying to take care of their baby girl.

Eventually, she decided to end the marriage. That’s when she walked in on a Billy Graham crusade in downtown Los Angeles. The message convicted her. She came home and announced that she was no longer planning to divorce Louis, and she wanted him to come hear the preacher too. The neat little bow ending to the story would be that Louis took her advice and came down to the altar the first time he heard Mr. Graham speak. But human nature is more stubborn than that. The first time he accompanied his wife, he turned around and walked out of the tent, angrily telling her, “Don’t ever try to get me back to a place like this again!” She urged him to try again, desperately hoping that it would save their marriage. He eventually agreed, on one condition: “As soon as that fellow says ‘Every head bowed, every eye closed, I’m outta there.'”

Fortunately, God had other plans, and Graham’s well-chosen words pierced Zamperini’s shell the second time through. As Franklin Graham recounts it:

He went home that night, got rid of his p*rnography,  he got rid of his alcohol, he threw his cigarettes away. And he found his Bible that was given to him in the military, and he began to read and study the Bible, and his life was transformed instantly that day, and it stayed with him the rest of his life. He never turned from what he had put his faith and trust in, and that was Jesus Christ.

In a world of murky anti-hero stories, it’s difficult to argue with a straight-forward hero story such as the one Jolie presents in her film. And the events she depicts are, in fact, true as far as they go. Yet people can tell when the whole truth is being airbrushed out of the story. The real hero of Zamperini’s story isn’t Zamperini himself, because Zamperini himself failed to live up to a heroic standard. His own merits were insufficient to break the vicious cycle of sin that was eating away at his life and his marriage. The Holy Spirit had to take him by the collar and shake him up. Thus it has always been and evermore shall be.

To rectify the gaps in Jolie’s film adaptation, the Billy Graham foundation has pulled some exclusive interview footage from the vault and put together a short documentary called Louis Zamperini: Captured By Grace. You can watch a couple clips for yourself, including a younger Louie giving his testimony at a crusade, and see if it seems “preachy” or “cheesy.”

The foundation is offering DVDs of the documentary at a “pay what you want” rate on their website here.

 

Christmas: To Know it For the First Time

One of my favorite Christmas movies is It’s a Wonderful Life. Technically, you could say the entire thing takes place on Christmas Eve, since George Bailey’s life story is told entirely through flashbacks as Clarence gets debriefed before touching down for his rescue mission that fateful night. Once George has his moment of grace and time returns to normal, he comes home to celebrate Christmas with family and friends as his oldest pounds out the tune of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” All the people who love him are gathered around, giving all that they can for this man who has helped so many.

When I was first teaching myself to make music videos a few years ago, I was inspired with the perfect song choice to match this movie. It’s a song called “World Traveler,” by Andrew Peterson. The character it describes sounds a lot like George Bailey. He grows up with dreams of seeing the world, but he winds up falling in love instead. In the process, he discovers the beauties and mysteries outside his own front door:

Take a left at the end of my street, just a few doors down

Up the hill and into the trees, there’s a hole in the ground

Where we traveled the caverns so deep

Wandered the wonders so wild

It was right beneath our feet

All this time, all this time…

Although Andrew was partly inspired by some actual caves that were discovered near his house, the song obviously has a double meaning. Even if we never go anywhere or see anything spectacular by the world’s terms, the adventure of finding love and raising a family can be just as epic. A man can lose himself walking the infinite hills of his wife’s soul. His children are images of God lying right beneath his roof. And the fellowship of dear friends is more precious than gold.

This Christmas morning, I’ll simply share my creation with you and hope that it moves you as much as it moved me while I made it. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

Merry Christmas to all!

Christmas Top Fives: “Angels We Have Heard On High”

Christmas Top Fives is a series where I take one beloved carol and run down my personal top five versions of it. Read earlier installments here. Today, I’m covering one of my all-time favorites! I will provide links to four favorite renditions, then embed my absolute favorite here (for ease of loading on slow browsers).

VeggieTales (featuring Palmy): What’s that you say? I already reviewed the album this song comes from last week, even spotlighting this particular track on it? Well, obviously it’s time to spotlight it again! “Gloooo…. woah-oh-oh-oh-oh….woah-oh-oh-oh-ohria” to you too!

Michael W. Smith: Remember when Michael W. Smith was still making exciting, inventive pop music? No, think further back. Think way back to his first Christmas album, released in 1989. Okay, so maybe the vocals could be more polished, but as a producer… I mean this is back when the guy was throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. And it’s totally epic.

The Piano Guys: When the Piano Guys cover something, you know it’s going to be unique, and it’s going to be awesome. This one is no exception. Even though you know the video is just them demonstrating how it was made and not a real live performance, it’s still mesmerizing.

Gabe Scott (instrumental): This gorgeous hammered dulcimer rendition (with a string quartet in the background), is an instrumental interlude on Bebo Norman’s Christmas album From the Realms of Glory. Gabe Scott does the honors, and his lush, lovely take on the carol would put a tear in Rich Mullins’s eye. I just wish it were three times longer.

Billy Gilman: I’m not here to discuss the rest of Billy’s career, but can we agree that this is possibly the best, purest version of “Angels We Have Heard On High” out there?

 

The Grinch Critiques… Revisionist “Joy to the World”

The last carol revision that came under the Grinch’s eye involved changing ye olde-fashioned grammar to something incorrect in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Today, the Grinch critiques something that makes him even grumpier: Politically correct revisionism. The carol in this case is “Joy to the World.”

If you pay close attention to the second verse, you might hear the traditional lyric as penned by Isaac Watts: “Joy to the earth, the Lord is come. Let men their songs employ.” But for a number of renditions, you might hear a subtle change. Instead of “Let men their songs employ,” you may hear, “Let all their songs employ,” or perhaps, “Let us our songs employ.” For some hymn-compilers, artists, etc., it’s a knee-jerk reaction to tweak the lyric. I mean, otherwise (*gasp*) the women in the audience might feel left out! We wouldn’t want them to think only the men were being invited to employ their songs!

Of course, this is silliness. “Men” here is simply a natural use of the generic male noun to refer to “the race of man,” that is, human beings. You see boys and girls, before the PC police came along and tweaked everything, people used to refer to “mankind” instead of “humankind” and use the generic “he” without thinking twice about it, because people were educated and understood graceful language. Now, with our new and improved “gender-speak,” well, it’s clunkity-clunk-clunk, look at Frosty go. Continue reading “The Grinch Critiques… Revisionist “Joy to the World””

Gold City Suffers Devastating Bus Fire

[Update 12/21: A GoFundMe page has now been set up for fans to donate towards recouping the quartet’s loss.]

The Gold City Quartet will have a bittersweet Christmas, as this week their publicist reported a devastating fire that swept through their bus barn and product warehouse. Both buses were destroyed along with performance wardrobes and most of their product. However, nobody was hurt, and they are grateful that if a disaster like this had to happen, it happened while they were on break from touring! In a typical week, they might have been on the bus ramping up for a trip and gotten caught in the fire themselves. As of now, the cause of the fire is unknown. The quartet thanks the fans for their prayers and support. All details so far have been posted on their Facebook page here.

More Essential Tracks of Christmas: “Emmanuel/Little Town/Christmas Hymn,” by Amy Grant

So last year I did this thing called “The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas,” and people seemed to like it, so I thought I’d add a few more every year. I can’t guarantee there won’t be fewer than or more than twelve more, hence the open-ended title. Anyway, these are more tunes without which my Christmas still really isn’t complete. They were brutally cut out of the final edit for The Twelve. So, consider this the expanded edition.

This installment might be considered cheating, because it’s a threefer. From Amy Grant’s first Christmas album (simply titled A Christmas Album), these three songs are strung together in a continuous sequence: Michael W. Smith’s hit “Emmanuel,” a different take on “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and a joint collab between him and Amy on a modern “Christmas Hymn.” The editing is so seamless, and all three so good, that I thought, heck, why not just find the gapless version on Youtube, feature that and call it a day? My personal favorite is “Christmas Hymn.” It’s an underrated, beautifully written classic not unlike something the Gettys might craft today.

A note on “Emmanuel”: Every single year we pull this one out, my family and I can’t help noticing its rather embarrassing (awesome? embarrassingly awesome?) similarity to the soundtrack for Ladyhawke. We couldn’t get through a workout to it yesterday without adding a running commentary of quotes from the movie. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, neither you nor your parents grew up in the 80s. Or if you did, this essential piece of 80s pop culture somehow flew (*cough*) under your radar. Here, let me fix that for you…

Have some more 80s kitsch lurking in the attic of your memory that you can’t quite identify? Call now at 1-800-PLACETHATSYNTH. That’s 1-800-PLACETHATSYNTH. Our operators solemnly swear to spin nothing but Mannheim Steamroller for your Muzak-listening pleasure while on coffee break.

Christmas Favorites: A Very Veggie Christmas

I started this series to showcase some of my favorite Christmas albums, but it fell off a couple years ago. Since I have some all-time faves that I didn’t even begin to get into, I’m going to revive it this year. (Feel free to catch up with the first five I wrote, which have been neatly sorted for your reading pleasure here.)

We’ll start with A Very Veggie Christmas. Yes, Bob, Larry and Co. are having a Christmas party. Unfortunately, Oscar the Polish caterer is inexplicably a no-show, so while they’re waiting, the Veggie crew puts on a Christmas production like nothing you’ve ever heard. The theme is Christmas Around the World. As Pa Grape describes it, “Kinda like Missionary Week. Without the food.”

This is definitely one of the most original Christmas projects I have, and I’m not joking when I say it’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s constructed as a running series of skits, interspersing the songs with off-the-wall banter and typical guest/party chatter, Veggie style. (“Larry, where’s the food?” “I dunno, shoulda been here by now.” “Bob, where’s the bathroom?” “Down the hall, first door on the left.”) Connecting tracks are literally labeled with titles like “Talking,” “More Talking,” and “Vegetables Talking to Sheep.”  Like Pet Sounds or The White Album, this one has to be appreciated as a whole.

Continue reading “Christmas Favorites: A Very Veggie Christmas”

My Favorite Movie of 2014: Interstellar

“Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” — Dylan Thomas

Matthew McConaughey and McKenzie Foy in Interstellar

Since this film is still showing in IMAX theaters, and since it’s still my favorite film of the year, I thought it appropriate to put out my review of Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar. Grappling with Big Questions about Life, the Universe and Everything, with characters I cared about, set against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of astrophysics geekery… what more could I ask for? As my dad said on our way out of the theater, “I might come up with something to dislike about it. Next year.” But in truth, that’s not quite accurate. I do have some criticisms of the film. They’re just outweighed by the positives.

In brief, the premise is that some time in the near future, Earth’s crops are plagued by blight, and the atmosphere is slowly becoming unbreathable. In this 21st century dustbowl, we’re introduced to former NASA pilot/engineer turned farmer Joseph Cooper (“Coop”), played by Matthew McConaughey. Coop is a restless soul, a man born out of due time. In the words of his father-in-law, he “was good at something and never got a chance to use it.” He can’t pretend to like farming. But the world needs farmers, not engineers, and he’ll do anything to carve out a life for his two children.

His daughter Murphy is preternaturally smart. So when she starts to report some paranormal happenings, Coop is puzzled and skeptical. Books are falling off her shelf by themselves, she says. A small ship model is found inexplicably broken on the floor. Her theory? “I looked it up. It’s called a poltergeist.”

“That’s not very scientific, Murph,” murmurs Papa with mild disapproval.

“You said science is about admitting what we don’t know.”

The kid’s got a point. And a knack for foreshadowing dialogue.

Continue reading “My Favorite Movie of 2014: Interstellar”

The Grinch Critiques… Revisionist “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

This Christmas I… uh, I mean the Grinch thought he would get a few complaints off his chest about people who mess with the lyrics of old Christmas carols. To be clear, the Grinch is not unhappy with these carols themselves. The Grinch loves Christmas carols. It’s just that the Grinch doesn’t like what some people have done with them.

Sometimes there’s a not-so-subtle agenda at work, as when a lyric is truly mangled to be more politically correct (removing all references to men or the male pronoun, for example). Sometimes it’s a more innocent but still painful attempt to be “helpful” when it comes to a slightly archaic turn of phrase. Some more contemporary adapters have mistakenly thought they understood grammar better than the original writers, so, bumblingly, they actually make things worse.

One of Grammar Grinch’s pet peeves is a verse in one popular set of lyrics to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Unfortunately, some of his favorite musical renditions of this carol, from the Annie Moses Band to the Cathedrals, have a sadly corrupted version of one of the verses that hopelessly scrambles the grammar. The problem line is bolded:

In Bethlehem of Judah the blessed babe was born

And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn

To which his mother Mary did nothing take in scorn

Oh tidings of comfort, etc.

No, no, no! You’re making Grammar Grinch cry.

Continue reading “The Grinch Critiques… Revisionist “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen””