The evangelist Billy Graham long had a film production company that produced movies with the same aim as his televised “Crusades” — to win converts, or at least reaffirmations of faith from believers.
These were simple, modest-budget films with varying settings but always stories about people in crisis — legal, moral, ethical — finding hope, in the third act, via a Billy Graham Crusade.
Billy Graham died earlier this year, and “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” wasn’t produced by his film company. But this low budget sequel to Angelina Jolie’s 2014 Oscar season film biography “Unbroken” follows the same formula, with the same basic ingredients, as Graham’s self-produced big screen infomercials.
There’s a soul in crisis, the Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who survived torture in a Japanese POW camp and is so tormented by what he went through that coming home doesn’t mean his war is over. Reconnecting with family and finding love cannot stop the nightmares — drifting in a life raft for 47 days in the Pacific, surrounded by sharks, beaten and threatened with beheading by a monstrous prison guard nicknamed The Bird for years. He falls into despair and alcoholism.
And then Billy Graham comes to LA for the Crusade that would make his reputation and park him in the public eye for the next 70 years. After pushing and prodding and reaching rock bottom, the Catholic Zamperini goes, reluctantly rediscovers his faith and finds purpose.
It’s not a star-studded affair, and “Path to Redemption” was directed by the “God’s Not Dead” director — Harold Cronk — who is operating outside the Hollywood mainstream. But it shows why that formula was left unaltered by Billy Graham Worldwide Pictures, back in the day. And in some ways, it betters Jolie’s big budget Oscar bait, with its team of Oscar winning screenwriters and “name” cast.
Samuel Hunt of TV’s “Empire” and “Chicago P.D.” is Zamperini this time. He looks like the young Louis, has a runner’s build and a miler’s stride and the gaunt face of a man starved in a prisoner of war camp, unlike the Englishman (Jack O’Connell) Jolie cast in the role. If Jolie sees this she’s going to kick herself. Hunt is terrific in the part.
We meet Louis upon his return to Japan in 1950, a man in a nice suit followed by a Time Magazine photographer, searching the faces of chastened war crimes’ prisoners, questioning them and their American guards.
“Where’s Watanabe? Where’s The Bird?”
The story flashes back to Louis’s homecoming, the onetime “Torrance Tornado” welcomed back to his big, loving family who show him his fan mail and explain the shouts and waves he gets walking down Torrance streets.
“You are a hero!”
“You’ve got me confused with somebody else, Mom. I just survived.”
He endures the backslapping of his local priest, but quickly corrects the man’s embrace of the “miracle” that got him home safe.
“Miracles didn’t save my tail-feathers, Padre. Two atomic bombs had something to do with it.”
Louis declares that his experience got him over the whole God thing. Pushing that, or forcing him to listen to reminders of what he went through tends to set him off.
Aimless, he hits the local bar entirely too often. An Army shrink (Gary Cole) offers little comfort. Then the military (Bob Gunton) enlists him in in the ongoing War Bonds drive needed to pay for the very expensive conflict America just fought. As with the overwhelmed heroes of Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” Louis finds himself immodestly retelling and reliving his ordeal, increasingly drunk while doing it, on the road from coast to coast.
Maggot-filled rice flashes before his eyes at meals, elevator rides are strafed by Japanese Zeroes and his epic grudge with the barbaric Japanese guard who assaulted him over and over grows.
Even meeting the love of his life (Merritt Patterson) and their whirlwind Miami romance doesn’t end the nightmares.
Only revenge can, or so he thinks. And then Billy G. (played by Will Graham, Billy Graham’s grandson) comes to Los Angeles.
Cronk and screenwriters Richard Friedenberg and Ken Hixon handle all of this with care. The always spotless and creased costumes (even aprons) may not look like they’ve been lived in, Graham the Younger may have little of Grandpa’s telegenic passion, charisma and magnetism. But the story moves along even as it covers familiar ground.
The courtship features a lump in the throat romantic gesture, as Cynthia (Patterson) gently rebuffs a too-hasty Zamperini proposal with “I’ll race you for it.”
A POW twelve years removed from the Olympics or not, the fellow’s still a world class runner, even on Miami Beach. Cynthia?
“I’ve been outrunning boys my whole life.”
They line up in the sand, on your mark, set, GO. He explodes out of the blocks and sprints towards a lifeguard stand only to realize she’s behind him, smiling and walking towards her future — him. That’s a “Yes,” big boy.
“Thank you for preserving the free world for silly girls like me.'”
The dialogue is sharp and generally period-correct, Zamperini’s flirtation with re-starting his running career a dozen years after his previous (very young and not triumphant) appearance at the Berlin Olympics lets us see that Hunt is more at home on the track than the previous big screen Louis.
But you don’t have to have seen Zamperini on stage with Graham, later in life, telling his story to feel that what you’re seeing is entirely too familiar. It takes nothing away from what the man endured in saying the entire arc of this telling of it is worn and robbed of surprises, with only the odd dash of pathos. Every movie with an AA meeting in it has a roughly similar testimonial, excepting the POW torture element.
We see his cynicism, his rejection of Christianity, but it never has enough heat and fury to it for us to believe it. The director and his star play these moments as pulled-punches, and they don’t land.
This material was partly covered in the original film, “Unbroken,” and there’s just not enough that’s novel or interesting about Zamperini’s odyssey through this phase of his life to warrant another movie. They just changed the emphasis to his faith.
When I was a kid, my Boy Scout troop was called in to act as ushers whenever a Billy Graham movie would play in the single screen theater in the small town where I grew up. I got to know the “formula” for these films before I knew what to call it.
“Path to Redemption” is too much like those earlier works for its own good. Message over movie, “drama” lacking drama.
It truly works on the level too many other faith-based dramas do, as comfort food for the faithful, an altar call for the already saved.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic content and related disturbing images
Cast: Samuel Hunt, Merritt Patterson, Will Graham, Gary Cole, Bob Gunton, David DeLuise
Credits:Directed by Harold Cronk, script by Richard Friedenberg, Ken Hixon based on the Laura Hillenbrand book. A PureFlix/Universal release.
Running time: 1:38