Deep Focus: Unbroken
From the opening shot of Unbroken—a gorgeous view of B-24 “Liberator” bombers flying in blue sky and dawn-tinged clouds—director Angelina Jolie and her ace cinematographer, Roger Deakins, prepare the audience for an epic. Their depiction of the dangers inside a B-24 will stun even viewers who’ve already devoured Laura Hillenbrand’s compulsively involving and insightful biography of World War II bombardier Louis Zamperini. It’s breathtaking to see Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) navigate the bomb bay catwalk, a mere nine inches wide, as the bay doors open wide beneath him and only his balance prevents him from plummeting into the ocean.
Taking off from Hillenbrand’s detailed renderings of bombing raids and attacks by Japanese Zeros, Jolie brings a fresh eye to aerial combat. Her emphasis on the American fliers’ close, chaotic conditions, and the gunners’ and bombardier’s exposure to open sea and air, primes a viewer’s senses. It raises hope that her kinetic and psychological instincts will bring to vivid, unruly life Hillenbrand’s turbulent saga about the son of Italian immigrants who became an Olympic runner and Olympian survivor, enduring an unprecedented number of days adrift in the Pacific and then two years of torture in Japanese prison camps.
Undoubtedly, Unbroken stems from Jolie’s genuine devotion to Zamperini’s story. But any filmmaker who celebrates “a triumph of the human spirit” risks falling into hagiography. And that’s what happens with Jolie’s Unbroken, which dramatizes Zamperini’s wartime ordeals as his Stations of the Cross. In the sequence at the center of the movie’s ad campaign, a savage Japanese commandant orders the emaciated hero at gunpoint to heft a weighty beam and hold it above his head. The resemblance to crucifixion becomes unmistakable when the beam slips behind his neck. Jolie can be a sensitive, even limpid director; she doesn’t flinch from atrocities, and doesn’t rub the audience’s noses in them, either. But in her worst piece of direction, the “destiny” themes of Alexandre Desplat’s clichéd score, complete with heavenly choirs, swell over the soundtrack as the crucifixion tableau melts into a closeup of Zamperini displaying grit and perseverance in his Olympic running days.
Unbroken contains other equivalents to Biblical agonies. In a modern form of scourging, scores of Zamperini’s fellow prisoners are compelled to punch their comrade in the face. These tortures, though grounded in fact, are grueling rather than revelatory. This film’s ability to connect with audiences will probably depend on their love for the Good Book—or perhaps for Hillenbrand’s excellent best-seller. On its own, the movie grows increasingly one-dimensional, crippled by the ambition to be inspirational.
The problems begin when the filmmakers interrupt the opening sequence to flash back to Zamperini’s youth in Torrance, California. Rather than catch viewers up in the herky-jerky momentum of a speed demon’s early life, the film presents a series of emblematic moments. It introduces the impatient young Zamperini (C.J. Valleroy) tapping his feet at church, on a Sunday when his priest just happens to be telling his congregation to “accept the darkness,” “live through the night,” and “love thine enemy.” The movie depicts Louis as a very juvenile delinquent without exploring the reckless creative temperament he displays even as an inveterate thief. Every scene delivers a lesson. When his Italian-speaking father (Vincenzo Amato) gives Louis a spanking, he explains that he can’t tolerate a wayward child, because “They already don’t want us here.” The film’s didactic approach particularly diminishes the character of Louis’s brother Pete (played first by John D’Leo, then by Alex Russell), who coaches him in running to keep him out of trouble. Pete becomes a homily machine, churning out uplifting phrases like “If you can take it, you can make it” and “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” Of course, these sayings come in handy later. After Pete sends Louis off to the Olympics, the movie cuts back to the B-24 making a daredevil landing.
The four credited screenwriters (Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson) telegraph ideas about fortitude, faith, and pride without piercing to the heart of hard-shelled characters. The filmmakers apparently feel that only Deep Thoughts and extravagant gestures can hold their own against bullets ripping into metal, sharks attacking life rafts, and kendo sticks scarring American flesh. Zamperini’s remarkable accomplishments at the 1936 Berlin Olympics enter the film in a brief interlude between two halves of a dire plane crash. The movie reduces Hitler’s Olympics to Louis’s 5000-meter race and a few poignant moments. These happen mostly via cuts back home to Torrance, where even Louis’s bête noire, the hometown cop, has his ear glued to the radio. (Zamperini does get to cast a meaningful glance at a Japanese competitor.) Louis intends to run in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but instead reaches Tokyo in the worst possible way.
The combination of action interruptus and over-sold, character-building vignettes prevents editors Tim Squyres and William Goldenberg from finding a satisfying rhythm. It also stymies performers like O’Connell from achieving any illusion of spontaneity. The connections between sections feel forced, as do the stated themes—most of all, the hero’s burgeoning religious faith. At one point, Zamperini interrupts the prayers of his best Army Air Force friend and pilot, “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), and says, “My mother does that sometimes.” After they crash into the Pacific, they float away from the wreckage on two lashed-together rafts, and Louis seeks a deal with God. If He really acts like a savior, Zamperini will devote his life to Him. As drama, it’s the strongest part of the movie: O’Connell does his most alert acting as he calms and humors a numb or hysterical third survivor, tail gunner “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock), and takes charge of his wounded skipper (played by the sensitive, modestly stalwart Gleeson without an ounce of self-pity). But the attempt to portray religion as central to the bombardier’s survival, or to depict Louis himself as a spiritual symbol, holds no water. The bulk of the movie pays tribute to his stoic determination, not his trust in the divine; always a competitor, he simply refuses to break down and let his captors win. The movie devolves into an extended face-off between Zamperini and a Japanese sadist known as “the Bird,” who persecutes the hero across two camps. The spectacle is fiercely compelling—the human equivalent of an irresistible object meeting an immovable force—but both the immovable force and irresistible object are also impenetrable characters.
What’s befuddling is why Jolie and her backfield of writers transformed a book that’s full of texture and incident into such a single-minded film. They ignore colorful figures who could have fused the fractured chronology, like a Japanese émigré named Jimmie Sasaki. This seemingly innocent college friend of Louis’s at USC later served the Emperor as a mysterious bigwig at the secret interrogation center where the Japanese held Louis for a year and 15 days. (The film ignores Zamperini’s college days and collapses his withering experiences at that center into his time at two POW camps.) Even worse, the filmmakers give amazingly short shrift to the POWs’ mastery of theft and sabotage. Hillenbrand writes that at the Omori camp, located on an island in Tokyo Bay, “Deaths from illness and malnutrition had once been commonplace, but after the thievery school was created, only two POWs died, one from a burst appendix. And in a place predicated on degradation, stealing from the enemy won back the men’s dignity.”
Did Jolie and company fear that showing how “Two-foot long salmon would emerge from under shirts” and “three cans of oysters from a single boot” would bring the film too close to John Sturges’s The Great Escape? Unbroken needs some of that film’s gallows comedy and improvisatory vitality. After all, one of the book’s central chapters is titled “Farting for Hirohito.” (“When the men were ordered to bow toward the emperor, the captives would pitch forward in concert and let thunderclaps fly for Hirohito.”)
Jolie’s film also could use the dynamic, sometimes satiric political drama of David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, a POW movie that dared to contrast different kinds of excess in Japanese and British military pride. In Unbroken, it’s chilling to see a haughty, anonymous Japanese officer daintily eat dinner while overseeing Louis’s first real interrogation. But the movie doesn’t delve any deeper into the mores and biases of the Imperial Japanese Army, so there’s no resonance to the POWs’ theory that the Bird, the scion of a wealthy family, was incensed to the point of insanity when he entered service as a lowly corporal. Jolie doesn’t touch on his insecurity among his fellow Japanese and his resulting need to befriend and then brutalize his prisoners. Hillenbrand writes that when he “wasn’t thrashing POWs, he was forcing them to be his buddies,” hauling them into his room for late-night “tea parties,” where he’d lecture them on literature and hold concerts. Miyavi, a Japanese singer-songwriter, imbues the Bird with an ambiguous sexual presence. He expresses the erotic glee he gets from smashing Louis’s face and torso, but he can’t reveal the full extent of this villain’s nihilism and volatility. The Bird does call POWs his “friends,” and he wants Louis to congratulate him when he’s promoted to sergeant. But he remains an enigma. When Louis sneaks into the sergeant’s room after the war ends, the only clue he sees is a photo of the Bird as a boy with his military father. (You have to read the book to learn that this dad died or left his family when his son was young.)
As a movie, Unbroken wants to be the strong, silent type. But more precise colloquial dialogue might have kept the film from sliding into nightmarish stylization. (The best line—Phil’s copilot comparing flying a B-24 to “sitting in a living room and trying to fly a house”—is a clever variation on a quote in the book.) By the time the action moves to the Naoetsu POW camp on the west coast of Japan, everything seems horribly sudden; one moment the POWs button up against the bitter cold, the next they strip to the waist in baking heat. Reduced to slave labor, including hauling coal on their backs, the prisoners accumulate layers of soot until it’s a second skin.
The filmmakers chose not to dramatize that Louis was plotting with a dozen other officers to kill his nemesis, but never got the chance. It’s as if Jolie thought that any touch of derring-do would corrupt her film’s sanctity. Zamperini’s heroism was actually rooted not just in faith but also in guile, audacity, ingenuity, and even humor (working as a camp barber, he once shaved a prison guard’s eyebrows to look like Marlene Dietrich’s). Honoring his memory should also mean seeing him in the round. A film that was truer to life would also have been more entertaining.