Directed by Angelina Jolie and co-written by the Coen brothers, this films tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II.
Going the distance is the classic American movie maxim. To endure is to conquer. It makes winners out of the defeated. It leaves tormentors confused, cloaked in shame, and wondering how their victims can cling to hope when it seems to make more sense just to give in.
That’s the story – and the promise – embedded in the title of this, the second film from Angelina Jolie as director, and there’s nothing in its near 2 ½ hour running time that allows for the idea that happy endings are impossible and redemption is never far off.
Its vision is narrow, shallow, and holds no surprises. The production itself has an epic sweep. Like so many war pictures, Unbroken takes the machinery and practice of industrial strength killing and makes it a thing of beauty. Its first shot is a soft sky full of WWII bombers, looking like sweet angels, highlights from the sun winking on their stumpy wingtips like tiny stars.
In David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), spectacle was part of the madness of war. It was a necessary irony. A shield against taking on too much dumb bravado at face value, and with it, the conviction that war thrives because it’s exciting. Unbroken doesn’t have that kind of hardboiled loftiness. It batters you down with earnestness. The rest of the time it just batters. Its dominant image is of its good-looking lead, English actor Jack O’Connell, getting hit in the face. It’s so in love punishment it might be mistaken for a Mel Gibson movie with the gore dialled down.
That is, Unbroken hasn’t much to say about war other than suggesting it’s hell. That kinda makes its prettiness that much more offensive. The great Roger Deakins shot it, and in terms of meeting the tech challenges, it’s a terrific job: there are moments, like an utterly convincing and scarifying set-piece on board a damaged aircraft in mid-battle or the grimy slime of a jungle hideout, that have the stink of truth about it. But for Deakins the work is bland. It’s a thing of warm, earthy tones, and little true grit. It made me think of Hallmark and Disney. Maybe Jolie and co. thought the material was just too dark.
Unbroken is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller about Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini (O’Connell), whose life story, sans the brutal psychology, sounds like an old-fashioned Hollywood tearjerker. A small town Southern California boy of immigrant folk who could not speak English, Louie flirted with juvenile delinquency before discovering a talent for running – he’s play by the very good C.J. Valleroy. As a teen, he competed in the 1936 Olympics. He ran in the 5000m and lost, but his performance earned him a personal commendation from Hitler. (This bit is not in the movie.) In WWII, Louie was a bombardier in the Army Air Force. He was shot down in May 1943. He spent 47 days on a tiny raft at sea battling starvation, madness, hostile swells, the sun, and sharks. He was rescued by the Japanese. He spent the rest of the war as a POW.
Beaten and tortured in one prison camp after another, he endured the wrath of his captors, like Mutsuhiro ‘The Bird’ Watanabe. When the war was over, Zamperini fought the drink and rage. He was born again (with the help of Billy Graham). He returned to Japan to meet his one-time enemies in a spirit of reconciliation. The Bird refused. He died age 97 last year.
It’s a big story with more than one movie in it. Jolie and co. crop the early years – weaving them into the WWII narrative as Louie’s memories – and leave out the post-war dark age altogether. After a couple of brief but powerful action scenes and a long section where Louie and two pals, tail gunner Mac (Finn Wittrock) and pilot Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), are lost at sea (the movie’s best bit, but more on that later), we’re left with a long last section; a prison camp pic where our hero is locked into a battle of wills with Watanabe (Japanese pop star Miyavi aka Takamasa Ishihara). Jolie has him played as an effeminate sadist. Some have seen this characterisation as one of repressed homosexual rage. It’s not that interesting. Watanabe is as thinly written as everyone else here, and if he’s got an inner life, we never glimpse it. All we get from him is a lot of leering, much violence and the movie’s only good line, as when he taunts Louie: “Why do you let me hit you.”
Unbroken’s set-up suggests grand ambitions. It asks how do you face something like this? Why not go crazy? Or turn monstrous? Or try an escape? (This never comes up.) But the script does nothing to serve these questions. Hollywood gossip maintains dramatising the internalised drama of Louie’s struggle in the book was never quite in reach. There were four writers, starting with William Nicholson (Gladiator) and Richard LaGravanese (Behind the Candelabra). They were re-written by Joel and Ethan Coen. I don’t know who was responsible, but much of the dialogue here has an awfulness I thought impossible with a movie of this pedigree: it’s a testament to Jolie’s direction and O’Connell’s acting chops that Louie’s mantra, “If you can take it, you can make it,” is merely cringeworthy. Worse still is Louie’s juvie bad boy self-assessment delivered to his big brother Pete (John D'Leo and Alex Russell), whom he idolises: “Let me be nothing.” The best bits are non-verbal like Louie and co.’s ordeal at sea, which has the visceral excitement of a survivalist procedural complete with frightening shark attacks, festering wounds and ingenious fishing technique. The cool articulation here of an intense lived experience is not unlike the suspense beats in the Coen’s No Country for Old Men. But there, even the bad guys were vulnerable. O’Connell is such a plank of stoicism I never thought he was at risk of breaking.
Louie the Redeemed is foreshadowed throughout the POW episode. Indeed, Jolie sets him as a martyred saint. In one gloriously bad-taste moment, Watanabe ‘crucifies’ Louie by having him hold a railway sleeper over his head… and threatening to shoot him if he drops it. As our hero prevails, a choir sends its chorus heavenward (no kidding) and Louie’s cohorts look on with awe in their weary eyes, applauding his courage while Watanabe chucks a hissy fit.
But then the whole film is a bit icky. It isn’t just the American exceptionalism. Or the decidedly undemocratic choice to have Louie’s mates live in his shadow. (The fortifying bond of brotherhood plays no role here unless it’s Louie doing the fortifying.) Unbroken suggests, not unfairly, that war wreaks havoc on those it touches. But what’s crooked about its moral is that it implies surviving its ravages isn’t enough. It re-imagines the real-life agonies of Louie and his cohorts as a kind of therapy for it to mean anything at all. That stinks.