Unbroken is a perfectly adequate movie that I’m glad I saw, but would rather never see again.
by Michael Clawson of TerminalVolume.com
I find it odd that the film is a Christmas release, with all the torture and all. Because nothing says “Happy Holidays” like starvation, canings, public humiliation, beatings, and forced labor. I’m picturing families drunk on cocoa and wearing matching Christmas sweaters recoiling at this frank and forceful level of brutality, and then quietly wishing for those old Rankin/Bass cartoons or maybe Ralphie and his BB gun.
This is not meant as criticism; just a simple observation about the kinds of movies people tend to gravitate toward during the holidays. (Yes yes, Django Unchained came out on the exact same day two years ago.)
Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, is the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner who was shot down over the Pacific during World War II. Zamperini is played by Jack O’Connell, an actor I was not familiar with before this, though I expect his name to start turning up in many other titles soon.
Zamperini’s remarkable story begins in a bomber high up over the Pacific Theater, but flashes back to his time as a young Olympian including his running in the 1936 Berlin games during the rise of Adolf Hitler. Years later, Zamperini would join the military to fight this man and his treacherous Nazis, but he was instead sent to the Pacific to battle with Japan. As the film returns to the bomber, we now have perspective on who this young man is, and was, so we can plot his trajectory, somewhat unevenly, through the war.
After Zamperini’s plane is shot down, he and two other men spend 47 days in a life raft drifting through the Pacific. They have this continuing joke that they can survive for 24 days because another soldier, Eddie Rickenbacker, had done it a year earlier. The joke isn’t so funny as they eclipse that number and then nearly double it. Eventually they are picked up by the Japanese navy, and then shipped to a POW camp with awful conditions. It’s these scenes that make up the bulk of Unbroken’s 137-minute runtime. And they are brutal.
We are witness to despicable action against American troops because it reinforces the film’s central theme: Louis Zamperini can’t be broken, will never give up and refuses to lose hope. Does that theme require these levels of sustained brutality? I’m not so sure. Men are whacked with wooden canes, withheld food and water, stripped of their dignity, and ordered to do manual labor until they die in exhausted and malnourished heaps. In one scene, Zamperini is told he can have food, a warm bed, and contact with his family if he records propaganda messages for Japanese radio. He refuses, and his punishment for that refusal is a punch to the face from every POW in the camp. The looks on these poor guy’s faces as they’re forced to clobber Zamperini is as horrific as Zamperini’s own face after it’s all over.
The Olympian's story is simply incredible, and altogether riveting, but I’m not sure Jolie ever elevates the film past its role as visual witness. It shows us a lot of the bad things that happened to this man, but Unbroken never really frames them within anything larger or more complex. It simply asks us to appreciate him because he suffered through unbearable treatment at the hands of sadistic jailers. The core of the real story — Zamperini’s eventual forgiveness of these jailers — is confined to a pre-credits title card. How did he embrace forgiveness, why, and to what end? These are questions the film does not answer, and seems too bored to even consider. Oh by the way, here’s 20 more minutes of Zamperini holding a log over his head, or hauling coal up stairs, or sparring with a Japanese camp commander with an evil twinkle in his eye. Is all this overkill? Probably not to the memory of Allied soldiers who died in these camps, but certainly to the emotional center of the film.
All of this punishing torture and degradation immediately brings to mind 12 Years a Slave, another movie that allows violence and hopeless mistreatment to sway a film's central story. Where Steve McQueen's film succeeds, and where Jolie's falters, is that his central character has periods of self discovery, acceptance, denial and ambivalence at his situation. His plight felt more three-dimensional, whereas Jolie's version of Zamperini — heroic and impervious to despair — is so rock-solid and true that his unbroken survival is a forgone conclusion, which means most of the scenes of violence and humiliation are for our benefit. And it becomes tiresome.
Even more curious than the film’s gleeful preoccupation with Zamperini’s most tragic life chapters is the fact that Joel and Ethan Coen have screen credits. I find it hard to believe that Unbroken is this singularly focused on one idea with these great writers contributing to the script. Their own movies bear the hallmarks of better storytelling, so why not this one?
All that aside, Unbroken is still a fascinating movie, albeit too grim and without the emotional payoff that naturally exists in the real story. Jolie’s scenes are photographed beautifully, the effects shots are convincing and used sparingly, and she coaxes some magnificent performances from her cast, including O’Connell and Takamasa Ishihara as the sadistic camp warden.
I just wanted the film to have more purpose than “hey, look at how awful this was.” Zamperini was a fascinating man, but I still find his motives peculiar and mysterious. Why did he choose to remain unbroken for so long, and why did he embrace forgiveness after so much pain? Don’t ask this movie, it doesn’t know.