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

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K. V. Turley is a London-based freelance writer and filmmaker.

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