See? It’s an incredible story. And that would have been plenty—it would have been amazing to stay unbroken just through all of that. But Unbroken keeps going. (For the record, I would have called the book The Distance, which resonates on several levels.) After 47 days, Zamperini’s raft miraculously drifts to land. But sharklessness, it turns out, brings its own special dangers, namely sadistic enemy soldiers. The men have landed on the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands. And as a celebrity POW, Zamperini is a target for all kinds of extra misery.
Hillenbrand spent seven years working on Unbroken and interviewed Zamperini (now in his nineties) around 75 times. She builds her portrait, with loving patience, out of the tiniest details. (Somewhere in those endless weeks on the raft, she tells us, Zamperini discovered that he was strangely comforted by the smell of his own earwax.) Clearly, Hillenbrand has come to revere his courage and intelligence—and rightly so. Still, I found myself wondering, occasionally, if that devotion was an obstacle, if it led Hillenbrand to accept a version of Zamperini’s life that is slightly less complex than his actual life might have been. Can it really be true, for instance, that, back on the home front, Zamperini’s severe post-traumatic stress disorder vanished as soon as Billy Graham persuaded him to devote his life to God? That he never again woke up sweaty and screaming, or picked petty fights with strangers in bars, or threw himself to the floor because he’d heard a loud noise? It’s hard to imagine that the psychological fallout of his incredible ordeal would be so easily conquered. I’m convinced that he was unbroken, but surely something had to be a little shattered in the process.