Unbroken: Gold Medal or Also-Ran?

It was always going to be hard. The New York Times bestseller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption touched millions with a tale that would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. Yes, it was going to be a tough call for any filmmaker. So when a relatively inexperienced director comes along, one who also happens to be a celebrity actress, we were going to have either something truly miraculous or something very broken indeed. What was it to be?

Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, a juvenile delinquent who discovers running and then goes on to represent his country at the 1936 Olympic Games. All was on course for a glittering track and field career when World World II intervened and, thereafter, he is off on a series of adventures that no Hollywood scriptwriter would have dared invent. And to top it all, at the story’s core is as much a spiritual adventure as anything else, and with an ending that is genuinely moving. He wrote his own memoirs but came to global attention through the 2010 version of his life told by Lauren Hillenbrand. She tells his tale well, very well in fact. The question for any prospective filmmaker was always going to be had she told it too well, and, by so doing, made any cinematic realization an also-ran?

The minute I heard that Angelina Jolie’s name was attached to the project as director, my heart sank. When I heard a British actor, largely unknown, was in the frame to play the very American Zamperini, it sank still further. When I heard that Jolie was producing as well as directing, my heart stopped sinking and froze in dread at what was coming next. Unbroken? I feared this film was never going to be assembled enough for it to be so tested.

So having given the bare bones of the story let’s take a look at how it has been realized on screen. Now, if you have read the book, and many have, then the whole concept of spoilers is redundant, and instead what will be of interest is how the two—book & film—compare in terms of their emotional intensity and impact. But, for those of you who know nothing about the central story, you may wish to dash off to the finishing line at the end of this review and see who wins which medal.

Unbroken movie posterThe movie’s opening grabs us straight away. We are high in the air with a World War II bomber crew somewhere over the Pacific. Soon we are tossed into the thick of an action sequence; there are a number like this in the movie, and all are done well with verve and gusto. Refreshingly, it reminded me of the way Hollywood used to make war movies. The film, however, from this point on starts to jump around with the time lines as we go back for a very quick run through the Zamperini early years, and it is quick, perhaps too much so. Unlike the book we don’t really get any sense of just how life-changing finding sport was for the young ne’er-do-well. The book makes clear this was not just the discovery of a talent but also a transformative experience, one through which he found his true self.

Compounding this the movie paints his family life in one dimension: an Italian mama and papa who love their boy dearly but just can’t seem to get through to him. There is one scene in which Mrs Zamperini is on her knees praying. She prays in Italian and the whole prayer is subtitled except its opening which is the key part: an invocation to and entrusting of her son to the Virgin—one wonders why this omission? Perhaps this is of no consequence; what is, however, is the fact that so many of the secondary characters in this movie, like his family, never really become anything other than scenery around the central character.

With the onset of war we soon move with Zamperini through being part of a bomber crew to a crash landing and then a long period adrift in the Pacific. This section of the book was especially affecting, not least because it was such a good description of the inner anguish and questing that Zamperini underwent during that experience. Although the sequence in the film is faithful to the text and well crafted, it never really grips or involves its audience as much as it should. There is also the inevitable sense of anti-climax because, at least in the UK, the movie is being promoted as a prisoner of war movie, so we know he must survive.

And survive he does, if that is the word, as the world he enters now is as brutal and dehumanizing as any that could be imagined. Soon we meet a personification of Sadism in the prison commandant, Bird (played impressively by Japanese rock star, Miyavi, in this his acting debut). This Japanese corporal struts around as if he is the Emperor himself—in a way in the prison camp he is—but this disconnect between reality and fantasy proves to be the root of his problem: one he is keen to share with all the camp’s unfortunate captives. The soft, almost feminine, features of the man belie what lies beneath: a psychopath. This individual enjoys inflicting pain in general, and in particular on Zamperini. What follows is essentially a duel of sorts between the tormentor and the tormented. In the book this inner battle of wills is well fleshed out; alas, this is something cinema is generally poor at, and this film proves no exception. In the book, Bird was a manifold character, as unstable as he was unpredictable, and yet because he was real all the more terrifying as a consequence. Here, in the movie, he comes across as not much more than a bullying thug. In the pages of Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, Zamperini’s hatred of his captor is visceral, but so also is the sense of how destructive this emotion is for he who hates. On screen, for all sorts of reasons, these emotions are too deeply submerged to the extent of not being visible at all in what by the end appears to be little more than a challenge of endurance between the two men.

So what of the relative new comer, Jack O’Connell, in the lead role? The British actor has won much critical acclaim this side of the Atlantic albeit in two relatively low budget movies. My doubts about any British actor, let alone one with O’Connell’s ability, to carry off the role of Zamperini were dispelled only minutes into the movie; his performance is good. His resultant screen journey from movie star good looks to haggard prisoner of war—so much so there is a radical shift in his facial features—is as commendable as it looks real. Although, one suspects it could all have been even better with tighter direction and a script that allowed for greater emotional depth.

Which leads us to Miss Jolie. I came expecting to find that a celebrity let loose with $ 65,000,000 would only prove that Hollywood is not only bereft of plots but has lost the plot. To my surprise, for such an epic piece of filmmaking, I was impressed with the ambition with which she handled what was in essence always going to be a very difficult project. The set pieces are done well and there is a real attempt to grapple in a visual way with the story. But it soon becomes apparent that the sheer scale of all this outstrips her resources. It’s not that she has made a bad film, not at all; nor, however, is it in any way a great film—talk of Oscars would seem to be premature. Instead, what I suspect we have here is ultimately a subject and a story that would defy any filmmaker—veteran or novice.

In the end, Zamperini and his story proved larger than life, and much too large for only two hours of film. As a result, any movie could only ever appear episodic; perhaps a mini-series would have better encapsulated some of the threads that weaved in and out of this multifaceted life. What the film singularly fails to convey is how complex a man Zamperini was, just as it fails in the same regard with his nemesis, Bird. This complexity, as opposed to the stereotypes that Hollywood often serves up, would have taken nothing from the story and should have come as no surprise to an audience given that life is often much stranger than fiction.

Zamperini’s post war conversion to Christianity at a Billy Graham meeting—he had been brought up a Catholic but then lapsed—and how that was born out of a necessity to deal with his hatred for his former tormentor which was destroying his marriage and his life was glossed over in an all too brief written epilogue. To be honest that story is probably a film in itself. But then so is his time adrift for 47 days in the Pacific, as well as his early years of delinquency before the transformation into a track legend on his way to Hitler’s Olympics. I could go on, but even if you haven’t read the book you will start to appreciate the epic nature of the life lived. Coming out of the screening, my admiration was more for the author of that book than the filmmakers. It is to Hillenbrand’s credit that she takes such a large canvas and somehow makes the emotions inherent in this personal narrative chime with it.

Nevertheless, it is to the credit of the filmmakers that religion is not shied away from in the story, if never dead center. We see Zamperini in a Pacific storm pray that if God will save him he would dedicate his life to following Him. We see his Catholic best friend praying after a near fatal crash. The film’s first flash back is to a priest in a pulpit preaching on forgiving one’s enemies. No problem with any of this. The only problem is the one that affects the entire film: a rich, multi-dimensional story is not given enough time to fully develop on screen. And this is particularly so in regards to its faith angle. Just as with running, there is no space for discussion or context so that its meaning never rises to anything other than a passing element in the movie’s narrative.

Rated PG-13, the only cause for concern may be some of the brutality of the prisoner of war ordeal, but it is all contextualized and never gory, just unrelentingly grim.

Would I recommend it? Yes. If you don’t know the book and want a straightforward piece of story telling from A to B then this film is enjoyable enough. If, however, you want an emotionally resonating experience that will linger for days, maybe even weeks, then I suggest you read the book.

And as to medals, on this occasion, I suggest you forget about gold or any other color for that matter, and instead stick with the truly miraculous.

K. V. Turley

By

K. V. Turley is a London based freelance writer and filmmaker with a degree in theology from the Maryvale Institute.

  • Vinny

    Timely, as I plan to see this Saturday.

  • Susan

    This article reminds me of Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” film which is an extraordinary film. I think the quality of a film such as these (true stories) has a lot to do with the film maker’s ‘connection’ with God, the level of spirituality one has with God because it is because of this knowledge and faith in God that gives insight into the humanity of man, and as a film maker, one has a higher ability to transmit this insight as a common thread throughout a movie, as being central to the character’s evolving search and growth of himself (Christ).
    Gibson portrayed Wallace’s faith in God through his equally untiring fight for freedom through many short lines/scenes without giving up the strength of the story. Portraying prayer in a film cannot be done as an inconsequential ‘character curio’ but rather, it must be presented as the backbone, the foundation and platform to any great ideals, for keeping up our faith; it is the strength begind our actions. Faith in God makes the difference apparent in how any author, or film producer presents his work to an audience. To pray is to talk and become acquainted with God, the more one progresses in this friendship, the more insight into ourselves and humanity as a whole comes through in our thoughts, words and deeds.

    • RufusChoate

      Braveheart was a great story but it had more to do with Mel Gibson’s highly romanticized vision and faith at that time in his life than history or William Wallace.

      • “Mel Gibson’s highly romanticized vision and faith at that time in his life”

        If Mel Gibson taught us anything, it’s to be skeptical of conspicuous public piety and cinematic evangelism.

        Mad Max was apparently the more accurate person portrayal.

        • RufusChoate

          I fear you are too true.

          • I can accept being a sinner, but scandalously going on the late night TV circuit to chuckle about being “Octo-dad” was a bridge too far for me.

            • Paddy

              If Mel Gibson was the nastiest and meanest Hollywood operator, it would be a better world. He’s not among the Hollywood elite who have largely destroyed Western Civilization., while demeaning Catholicism.

              • TERRY

                He’s a Catholic who screwed up. Being a public personality his screwups immediately become public property, being a Catholic they are used to denigrate the faith – by those who don’t get it.

                I would be honored to have him as a guest in my home.

  • R. K. Ich

    Splendid review. Will definitely rent it.

  • RufusChoate

    Great review but I think I will take Mr. Turley’s advice and read the book.

  • ColdStanding

    Meh, movies. Don’t feed the beast.

  • ForChristAlone

    Thanks for this film review. I will hasten to go out to purchase the book.

  • Southside

    David Lean, perhaps

  • Marie

    Read the book. I haven’t watched the movie yet, don’t know if I will, but the book is phenomenal.

    The article says that Zamperini was converted at a Billy Graham revival. This is true, but is only half the story. His conversion story is so dramatic, and the crux of his conversion is such a perfect and improbably poetic culmination of the whole story, that no novelist would have dared to write it. It would have been too much to swallow if it were fictional.

    When you read you read of his conversion and what he did with his life afterward, you will think that all his life beforehand was planned with that ending in mind. I guess it was planned, but not by man.

  • TERRY

    For a first time director I thought she did a good job. The story is indeed too big to cram into 2+ hours on the screen, but she did her best.

    The scene in his youth when his mother is praying for him – I found that especially touching, because Angelina Jolie, I believe, is estranged from her father who is a practicing Catholic, and who played PJPII beautifully in the Ignatius Press film.

    Could anyone recommend an American actor who could have played the part as well?

    The movie was good, not great. too I read the book and thought he did an ok job. I usually read fairly quickly but in the case of this book (like Seabiscuit – remember the exquisite phrase “Shit Godzilla’?) it was so enjoyable reading it that I forced myself to stop and just savor her use of and placement of words.

    One strong objection – as the closing credits were being played the music in the background was totally out of place – not up to the story which had just been told.
    In comparison – the movie ‘The King’s Speech’ – while the King is delivering the actual speech the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony is playing in the background – perfect. Music that is appropriate to and equal to the occasion. Ditto for the ending credits when Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is playing.

  • TERRY

    One more criticism – they should have given us dates, such as the date and place at the start of the movie, the date of the plane crash, the date of his return to the states.

  • D-Wood

    I figured it out. Have you ever watched a biographical documentary like on the History Channel? And they do a bunch of reenactment scenes so the viewer can get a visual of the historical event? That’s what this movie felt like. A series of well shot reenactment scenes. Emotionless and disconnected.

  • Read the book and you’ll be transformed as I was. No longer will I ever say I’m hungry while living in this land of plenty, nor complain about my aches and pains. 47 days on a raft adrift in the pacific shark infested waters drinking only the bit of rain water saved, perhaps just a thimble per week, and food, well, only that which they could catch. Then to be captured by the Japanese and be tortured continually with beatings to unconsciousness for two years. His normal weight was around 160 and when freed his skeleton and skin weighed 66 pounds.

    Read the book then go see the movie for the entertaining version.

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