Sunday, January 04, 2015
Unbroken is a great story dully told, a handsome and square-jawed tribute to the American spirit of indomitability. The life and World War II experiences of Louis Zamperini (played as an adult by Jack O'Connell) are certainly tales worth telling. Zamperini, who ran in the 1936 Olympics, was a bombardier who survived 47 days at sea with two other soldiers after their plane went down in the Pacific. Zamperini and pilot Phil Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) were captured by the Japanese and held for over two years until the end of the war. Director Angelina Jolie, working from a screenplay based on Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling book, chooses to focus on the indignities Zamperini suffered at the hands of prison camp commander Wantanabe (Takamasha Ishihara). The last third of Unbroken is a series of scenes of Zamperini being beaten, humiliated, and otherwise abused by Wantanabe, who it is suggested may have had psychosexual motivations for his behavior.
An alternate title for Unbroken might have been "Overcoming", for when we first meet Louis as a child he's a low-grade delinquent whose life is turned around by a lecture from his brother (John D'Leo, playing a character who speaks entirely in aphorisms). The "If you can take it, you can make it" message is the screenplay's focus to a fault. Jolie doesn't spend much time on the Olympics, where Zamperini finished eighth in the 5000 meters but turned heads with a record last lap. When Zamperini, Phillips, and a third soldier (Finn Wittrock) are adrift the film is its strongest, with attention paid to the minute details of survival and the question of how exactly one survives being strafed by a Japanese bomber when there is no place to hide. The much longer prison camp section of Unbroken spins it wheels to almost the same degree that the life raft scenes testify to what men can endure. Jolie doesn't individualize the other prisoners, with the exception of a glum American played by Garrett Hedlund, and there's little explanation of how the prisoners organize themselves or of the camaraderie they must have needed to survive. Instead Zamperini is punished over and over again, for the crime of having self-respect and for daring to look Wantanabe in the eye. The writing (Joel and Ethan Coen are among the screenwriters) fails Jolie here, because if we knew Zamperini the man better then it would be easier to be moved by his plight. Yet the script only seems interested in Zamperini as a symbol, and it's for that reason that my attention began to wander. Zamperini's time as a POW was not his whole life, and as for so many the war did not end for him when he came home. In striving to get the details right the makers of Unbroken miss a chance to give us a full picture of a remarkable man.