Expectations were high for my wife and I as we went to see Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s novel Unbroken, which chronicles the incredible story of Louis Zamperini. During his life, he set a high school record for the mile that stood for twenty years, competed at the Olympics while still in his teens, graduated from USC where he set more records, and became a bombardier during WWII. While on a search and rescue mission, his plane crashed landed into the Pacific. For 47 days, he was forced to survive on a raft before being captured by the Japanese. In turn, they subjected him to unbelievable abuse for over two years at the hands of a sadistic guard nicknamed ‘The Bird’ before returning him home with the end of the war. With my wife’s strong recommendation, I read and thoroughly enjoyed the novel beforehand. Afterwards, I was glad I did because the film leaves out huge chunks of his amazing story. This is a great example of the advantage that books will always have over feature films when it comes to telling truly epic stories. Of course, that doesn’t stop many studios from trying.
There has been a disturbing habit of late of unnecessarily splitting up novels into multiple films in order to maximize profits (see Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight, and the most “I rest my case” example ever, The Hobbit). Unbroken is one of those rare, epic stories that would benefit greatly from being presented over an extended format. Having read the novel, I know the rest of Louie’s story, and it is fascinating. After returning as a war hero, he suffers greatly due to post traumatic stress syndrome, a condition that society really knew little about at the time. He’s unable to find gainful employment; and by 1949, his young marriage to wife Cynthia is on the verge of collapse due to his abuse of alcohol. This is when he attends a Billy Graham revival meeting that transforms his life. He sobers up, starts a youth camp, and travels to Japan to forgive his former tormentors and carry the Olympic torch on its way to the 1998 games in Nagano. All this is given short shrift in the film, yet it needs to be told to complete the tale of this fascinating man. For now, let’s look at the how the movie depicts the chapters of his life it does cover.
Overall, the film does have a lot of positives. The cinematography is simply gorgeous and captures the atmosphere of the South Pacific very well. The audience can clearly understand the isolation the characters found themselves in once their bomber crashes. The musical score, while perhaps a bit understated, enhanced the emotional timbre of the film without distracting from it. One of the more interesting performances was given by Miyavi, a Japanese pop star turned actor who portrays the Bird, a guard that obsessively torments Louie. The way the Bird alternated from compassionate to psychotic made him appear all the more dangerous because the audience could never predict his next move. Although I felt Miyavi did a good job, I walked away wishing to know more about the actual person he portrayed and his motivations. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the only role that left me feeling this way.
Actor Jack O’Connell was compelling in his portrayal of Louis Zamperini. I never felt he overplayed his part, and his eyes did much to reveal what Mr. Zamperini must have been thinking during the years of his ordeal. This ability becomes critical because it serves as the only inroad to what Louie was going through mentally. Early scenes allude to Louie being a troubled but spirited youth, yet no answers are given to help explain where his incredible reservoir of inner-strength came from. Ultimately, the film gives us a clear picture of what he went through, but no answers to how he was able to survive two years of the most dehumanizing abuse. This film would benefit tremendously from a narrative device which allows the audience to understand where Louie found the will to survive the horrendous conditions of a Japanese POW camp. It could be as simple as an elderly Louie introducing each vignette or even a running voice-over commenting on the action. His interactions with others certainly left no clues. In fact, he seems to hardly connect to the other POWs at all. There are no discussions among them concerning escape, vengeance, or even survival. Every prisoner appears to be an island upon themselves and we learn very little about any of the supporting characters outside of Russell Phillips, the pilot who was stranded in the raft with Louie. Even this relationship is short-lived since they are split up and sent to separate prison camps once they reach mainland Japan. Russell isn’t mentioned again until just before the credits.
Another factor detracting from the potential emotional impact was the lack of a consistent time reference. After Louie’s plane ditches in the Pacific, the viewer is kept updated through subtitles and dialogue on the amount of time that passes as he bobs along in the open sea. However, once he’s captured by the Japanese, we get no sense of how long he’s been held as a prisoner of war. The weather changes throughout, but not in such a way as to really impress upon the audience the extended length of time involved. Physically, Jack O’Connell’s outward appearance really didn’t seem to change either. This becomes especially obvious when compared to the physical transformations that Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey have put themselves through in some of their films. While we do witness several brutal acts of torture visited upon Mr. Zamperini at the hands of the Bird, we don’t get the sense of the cumulative psychological effects this daily abuse would have had on him over the course of his imprisonment.
Ultimately, we are left with a solid film from director Angelina Jolie that gives us an striking example of the human spirit without revealing the humanity behind it.