There is a scene of horrid violence in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken that reconnects our disbelief and reminds us that we are only watching a movie about a phenomenal man, not journeying with him through life in a sympathetic embrace. It takes place in a Japanese POW camp and involves an entire platoon of prisoners punching his face. This they do in turn from daylight till dusk, till he’s a bloodied lump on the ground. The warmth of my heart tells me a lot of this movie is true, but try as I might I cannot believe this really happened. One punch alone is sometimes enough to break a face.
Scenes like this are necessary for movies like this, where the very human hero must rise from the ashes with superhuman qualities, so that we can believe his life indeed warrants two hours of screen time. Here’s a thought: What if Unbroken was told from another POW’s point of view, perhaps from one we see trudging pathetically in the background? Would it be as interesting?
Our hero is Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), who broke a record at the 1936 Olympics, caught Hitler’s attention, fought in War World II as an air force gunner, crashed, survived 47 days out at sea, was picked up by a Japanese warship, brought to two prison camps, was tortured mercilessly by the camp commandant and survived to light the Winter Olympics fire in 1998, in Japan. He died last year, aged 97.
This has the makings of a stupendous film, and I can see a masterpiece being born in the hands of Spielberg or Zemeckis, who know instinctively how to formulate a biopic we can instantly care about. Jolie, who has only had one other film under her belt as director, relies a bit too heavily on Louis’ greatness to carry her film, which wavers very easily into cliche and overwrought sentimentalism.
Her focus falls on Louis’ actions rather than on himself. He’s a great runner; we see him running in the Olympics. He’s a great air gunner; we see him shooting down a few Japanese planes. He’s a great survivor; we see him catching a shark with his bare hands. He’s a great prisoner; we see him enduring terrible punishment.
When the dialogue arrives, he becomes a statue. All the qualities that make him a character in the broadest sense are erased, replaced by lines like “I am nothing. I will always be nothing”. Of course we know he is not nothing, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie and we’d be sitting in a dark theatre munching on popcorn for two hours. Such lines only serve the progression of such a character — he is nothing now so that he can be something later.
I do not seek to undermine Louis’ immense triumph. One can only fathom the kind of anguish he had to endure, even after seeing Unbroken. A number of the travesties shown really happened. The vile Japanese commandant, codenamed The Bird (played by pop sensation Miyavi), really did envy Louis’ position as a sports hero among the Japanese people and sought to undermine him by awarding him special treatment. He really did call him to attention at ungodly hours just so he could whip his face with a belt. He really did force him to lift a log over his head for 37 minutes only to punch his stomach at the end. He really did see a darker side of himself in Louis, who, in the movie, is referred to by The Bird as “my friend”. I say this again: The life of Louis Zamperini deserves an incredible movie.
Jolie has not crafted an incredible movie here because she lacks the sensitive touch for her characters. Great survivors are not great because they survive. They are great because they find something utterly resilient within themselves to seek opportunities to survive. What does Louis find here? What drives him to keep going? The real Louis no doubt knows the answer to this question, but in a sneaky play he refuses to let Jolie and her crew in on the secret.
Best Moment | Reading at the end about Louis’ road to forgiveness and redemption, and how he returned to Japan to make peace with his captors.
Worst Moment | The obligatory shark scare as Louis patches a hole in his dinghy. When will filmmakers learn that sharks (and all animals, for that matter) will not commit to such an attack unless provoked? Oh, and I doubt work in a POW camp would cease operations entirely just so the prisoners and all the officers can be amused by an inmate lifting a log.