Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is an honorable movie about an inspiring true story. It is impeccably crafted, with a raft of remarkably talented people behind it. It is a celebration of the old-fashioned virtues of duty, grit, fortitude and honor. In the end, it tips its hat to faith, forgiveness and reconciliation.
The film I just described is a film that, on paper, I should love. Certainly the story — adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 nonfiction bestseller Unbroken: A World War II Story Of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption — is a powerful one.
In 1943, an Air Force officer named Louis Zamperini — a former Olympian who competed in Berlin in 1936 — survived a crash-landing in the Pacific and endured a grueling 47 days at sea in a life raft before being captured by the Japanese. During nearly two years as a POW, he suffered physical and psychological torture by a sadistic camp guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “the Bird” by his prisoners, who took a special interest in his celebrity prisoner.
Raised in a nominally Catholic home, Zamperini had no faith to speak of until after the war, when he accepted Jesus at a Billy Graham crusade. Embarking on a career as a Christian speaker, Zamperini told his story all over America, emphasizing the importance of forgiveness — a commitment he put into practice on a trip to Japan, where he met many of his former captors, embracing and forgiving them. Notably absent among these was “the Bird,” who refused to meet him.
Unbroken ends at the close of the war, alluding in closing titles to its hero’s postwar conversion and religious life. After the grueling experiences of the preceding two hours, some viewers may feel let down that the film relegates to a coda the most inspiring chapter of Zamperini’s saga. One way or another, there is something elusively unsatisfying about the way the story has been told here: a sense that some key dimension is missing. The closing titles suggest one possible way the story could have been illuminated, although it is not the only way or even necessarily the best way.
What is missing is a sense of revelation or insight, either regarding Zamperini as a character, or the experience of prolonged suffering and hopelessness, or the inner sources of endurance beyond hope — or, yes, the question of what one does with these experiences after the fact, finding meaning or meaninglessness in it, hope or hopelessness. “We [will] beat him by making it to the end of the war alive,” one of Zamperini’s fellow prisoners contends. “That’s our revenge.” Ah, but that’s not enough. Those who survive torture may still ultimately succumb to it.
The opening scene, a nerve-wracking, stunningly shot and edited dogfight devoid of context, is alive with possibilities. The crash-landing and the weeks adrift at sea — dehydrated, starving, harried by sharks and strafed by Japanese aviators — has a gnawing sense of fascination, in part because of the sense that it can’t go on forever.
Yet at the one-hour mark, as Louis (Jack O’Connell in a powerful performance) and another survivor, Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson, also excellent), fall into Japanese hands, the film undergoes a slow-motion collision with a dramatic brick wall. The question “How will they survive?” succumbs to grim inevitability as the Bird (recording artist Miyavi, effectively icky but human) beats down on Louis, and Louis stands up to him.
At this point, Unbroken becomes a sort of secular via crucis, almost a secular Passion of the Christ. Louis’ final trial, being forced to hold a heavy wooden beam over his head, overtly evokes crucifixion; more pointedly, like Jim Caviezel’s Jesus, Louis refuses to stay down after a beating, provoking even more abuse.
Although the depiction of Louis’ internment continues for more than an hour of screen time, the confidence of the storytelling and the strength of the visuals are a testament both to Jolie’s directorial instincts and to veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins’ contributions. Yet as well told as the story is, it offers little more sense of Louis’ psychology or inner life than Caviezel’s Jesus. The key difference is that meditating on the mysteries of Jesus’ suffering may be enough for many viewers; meditating on Louis’ sufferings, for me at least, is not.
Individual moments stand out. Louis’ future faith is anticipated in a key incident on the life raft (recalled in the closing credits) in which Louis swears to dedicate his life to God if he survives. There’s poignancy in a scene early in the second hour with the Bird forcing his exhausted, depleted Olympian prisoner to race against a Japanese guard. A shot of Louis and Phillips, naked and on their knees before sword-wielding captors, is one of a few moments in which Louis the POW is really confronted with the specter of immediate death. Then there’s a shot at the end that reveals a more human side to the Bird.
What keeps Louis going? Beyond the clichés Louis absorbed in his youth from his older brother — “If you can take it, you can make it”; “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory” — there is little insight. The problem is compounded by the distinguished names attached to the screenplay, notably the Coen brothers (yes, those Coen brothers). I’m not always sure I know what the Coens’ point of view on their material is; I’ve never until now been unsure whether they had one.
None of this makes Unbroken a bad film. You can see what drew the filmmakers to the material; if it’s not clear what perspective or context they meant to offer, the inherent power of the subject matter holds to the end. It may be unsatisfying to see Louis’ faith treated as an afterthought, but then I’m not sure another half hour of trying to cover the rest of the story would have been an improvement. Perhaps the filmmakers might have focused on Louis’ postwar life and related his war experiences in flashback, but that would have been a completely different film.
In the end, watching Unbroken makes me interested to read Zamperini’s story and to see whatever Jolie directs next. That’s not the worst thing you could say about a movie.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.