What everyone wants to know, is this one of those good marquee projects, or one of the Oscar bait ones? Directed by Angelina Jolie from a script by the Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Ref) and William Nicholson (Gladiator, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), based on the book by Lauren Hillenbrand, Unbroken tells the survival story of Louis Zamperini.
Zamperini was a first-generation Italian immigrant in an era when that meant instant bullying. Then he was an Olympic athlete, finishing a strong 8th in the final lap of the 1936 Berlin 5000 meter race. (This earned him a personal audience with Adolf Hitler, an event not shown in the film.)
As a bombardier in World War II, Zamperini was in a plane that had to ditch in the Pacific ocean. With two other soldiers, he survived 47 days adrift at sea, only to end up in a string of Japanese prison camps, two of them operated by a sadistic future war criminal Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe.
He survived much brutality to return home to a hero’s welcome and reunite with his family. That’s what the film dramatizes, more or less effectively. Standout sequences include a superbly imagined aerial dogfight and an unsubtle Christ parallel where The Bird (Takamasa Ishihara) forces Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) to hold a heavy wooden beam for a long hot afternoon… or he will be shot.
Unfortunately, the title cards at the end of the film give us a glimpse of a more interesting conclusion to Zamperini’s story. Zamperini later became a priest who took his belief in forgiveness so far as to return to Japan to personally forgive his captors. The Bird, we are told, was the only one who refused to see him.
The film has a glossy, glistening-chested, fashion magazine look mixed with flat orange skin tones that I’m guessing d.p. Roger Deakins meant to evoke 1940’s Technicolor, not Oompa loompas. Editors William Goldenberg and Tim Squyres keep the pace moving at a good clip. The back-and-forth flashback structure however tends to grind the narrative to a halt and add little to the main survival story, something upon which I blame whomever among the top screenwriters last touched the material. The banter between the soldiers is excellent, however. I might guess this dialogue is the work of the Coens, who at one time were adapting a different WWII survival story, James Dickey novel To The White Sea.
So, in the end, the film is neither a dull awards-mongering biopic nor is it the type of Lean-ian cinematic war epic it might’ve been. It’s certainly a strong first outing in the director’s chair for Jolie, demonstrating a sure hand with both performances and visual action. If she makes any mistake, it is to rely on the fact that Zamperini’s story is a true one to make it inspiring, rather than to shape the inspirational elements into their fullest form.
The Bird, for example, has little depth. Although he is played with a creepy homosexuality by Ishihara, he never manages to crawl out of the stereotypical villain box. Comparisons to the Japanese characters in Sands of Iwo Jima or Bridge on the River Kwai might not be apt, since this was a documented bad dude. But it might’ve been more nuanced if there had been some Japanese guards who clearly had qualms about the odd punishments they kept getting ordered to dish out.
Similarly, there is a short sequence that shows how the soldiers had a network to steal rice and gather news from the outside world. I would trade more of this detail of what it was like to be in the camp for the Life of Pi re-treads in the raft sequence.
Zamperini is a difficult protagonist. He’s constantly doubting his own endurance abilities, even though an informed audience well knows that his story wouldn’t be up on the big screen if he didn’t vanquish the limits of pain and mental fortitude. I much suspect that the real Zamperini was a hell of a tough son of a bitch, far more of a mascot for his fellow captors and, in the end, a profoundly spiritual being. Perhaps it’s too tall an order for any film to shine as bright as the man’s actual life.
I saw this film a few weeks ago and most of it has melted like the proverbial snows of yesteryear. I was not unduly impressed with the acting performances, which have been getting a lot of buzz. Steve Carell was too mannered for my taste. Mark Ruffalo was good as he always is, even convincingly bulky as a wrestler. If anyone stood out, it was Channing Tatum, who changed his whole body language and vocal tone to play wrestler Mark Schultz. If I was Mr. Schultz I wouldn’t be too plussed. I doubt the real person is as borderline mentally challenged as the film portrays him.
There are hints in this movie of a better film about the corrupting influence of wealth and power in the American system. Foxcatcher is at its best when the John du Pont character (Carell) is spouting jingoist sports mantras and betraying the corrupt endgame of inherited largesse. Like Unbroken, I wish the story had continued long enough to get to the real interesting part. Du Pont’s wealth bought him special treatment from the justice system. When he died in 2010, his will left 80% of his fortune to Bulgarian wrestler Valentin Yordanov, and was naturally disputed by his blood relatives.
As it is, it’s a fine story about the love between brothers, the desire to break out and achieve success on your own terms, and a rather obvious fable about taking money from insane billionaires who like to play with guns.
UPDATE: If you had any questions about the accuracy of du Pont’s creepy weirdness, this video should put them to rest: