The facts of Louie Zamperini’s life are extraordinary, but what truly makes his story one-of-a-kind are the emotions involved. Fear, pain, courage and faith—the kind of all-encompassing dedication that only the strongest survivors possess—these feelings often coexisted in what must be one of the most extraordinary lives ever lived. No wonder Hollywood has been trying to make a movie about his life since the 1950’s.
Director Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, based upon Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller, does a fine job with the facts of Zamperini’s life, but struggles in making us feel the deep emotion and empathy a story like his should evoke.
The film chronicles Louie’s almost unbelievable story of survival: after the WWII bomber’s plane crashed over the Pacific, he was stranded at sea for 43 days before being captured by the Japanese and hustled around to several POW camps, each with increasingly brutal conditions. He survived relentless torture, beatings and immense starvation, as well as the kind of psychological damage it takes a lifetime of recovery to overcome.
Louie’s dramatic struggles during the war are intermingled with stories of his childhood and teenage years; a young Italian-American drifter with no direction, he was convinced by his brother, Pete, to take up running and eventually became a star, breaking records during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The cuts between the intense scenes of war and the quiet backstory are sometimes jarring, but set a nice pace until the war scenes take over. The first half of the film is pretty extraordinary; the stranded-at-sea segment, in particular, is absolutely riveting. But once Louie is imprisoned and becomes a merciless target for the brutal camp commander Watanabe, also known as The Bird (Takamasa Ishihara, rather miscast), the movie settles into a workmanlike pacing that really drags the film down. Scenes of quiet power, whispered conversations between POWs as they find ways to steal food and listen in on news about the war effort, are juxtaposed with scenes of increasingly brutal—and numbing—physical and emotional abuse.
Even if you haven’t read Hillenbrand’s book, it’s easy to guess that Jolie and a slew of writers (the Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese and Willaim Nicholson) are giving us the Spark Notes version; easily digestible, pretty and rather dull. The plot is missing some crucial links. Louie’s Olympic runner backstory is pretty interesting, until it’s abandoned. How did Louie end up as a soldier, exactly? We’re told Louie misses his family terribly, but we only get one brief scene of them coping with his potential loss during his two-year absence. There are many scenes where the audience is expected to extrapolate emotions that the movie doesn’t deliver on, which leads to a lot of tonal confusion.
How are we supposed to feel, for example, when The Bird begins to relentlessly beat Louie with his belt? Are we angry at The Bird? Sure, but there is more to his character than the movie is willing to reveal. Why does he pick on Louie so much? What is his endgame? Is he simply a sadist, or does he feel he is doing what is right for his country? The central relationship in the film is between these two men with unbreakable spirits, yet we can’t get a bead on exactly what their relationship is, other than tormentor vs. captor.
Then there’s the ending, which may leave many cold. The film ends on a nice note, but then come the credits, with more than a few “explainers” letting us know what happened to the characters next. Might we have seen, for example, Louie’s battle with nightmares and alcoholism following the war? His trouble marriage? Or his ultimate redemption, brought about by his conversion to Christianity and his desire to make peace with his wartime captors? There is a powerful story of redemption here, but why did the filmmakers feel the need to bury it? Many war epics are three hours, but this one clocks in closer to two. I’m usually a fan of brevity, but in this case an extra hour could have given us a fuller picture on the scope of Louie’s life.
Despite the film’s myriad flaws, there is brilliance here, and that mainly comes in the form of Jack O’Connell, who does an outstanding job as Louie. O’Connell conveys emotions that would take pages to explain in a book through a simple glare, a laugh or an off-color joke. Where the writing falters in portraying the indomitable spirit of this man, O’Connell fills in the gaps. It’s one of the most physically grueling, effortless performances in ages.
As usual, I have to praise Roger Deakins’ cinematography as well. This is just a gorgeous-looking film, from the translucent blues of the ocean to the black soot of a coal mine, this is as polished-looking a movie as you’re likely to find this year.
Jolie is no slouch behind the camera, either. She makes good use of tracking shots and long takes, letting the movie’s best scenes play out without rushing us along too quickly.
The filmmakers have testified to how difficult making Unbroken was, and the struggle shows in almost every frame. From the writing to the staging to the editing, the film is like a pie with too many fingers in it. Making movies is hard work, but it should never look this hard. I think Louie’s story would actually be much better suited to a TV miniseries, a medium that would allow the emotions of his journey to really sink in. We may get a great filmed version of the life of Louie Zamperini someday. But, while Unbroken is passionate and occasionally stirring filmmaking, we’ll have to keep on waiting.