Ever since the smash success of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, people have awaited the film treatment of the story of Louis Zamperini. Zamperini’s story was not discovered by Hillenbrand. He was famous enough for Hollywood to have considered a movie about him as early as the 1950s. Tony Curtis was to star. The movie did not get made until the book reacquainted the public with Zamperini and Angelina Jolie took on the production and direction. Joel and Ethan Coen were brought in to rework the script and the movie was made in Australia. It has become a big hit.
The movie begins with Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) on a B-24 bombing mission in the Pacific in 1943. He is the bombardier. The bomber has to withstand flak and attack from Zeros. Bullets whistle through the interior and several crew members are injured. The bomber has to make a very hairy landing. During the flight back, we flash back to Louie’s childhood. He is a juvenile delinquent who smokes, drinks, and steals. His parents are at their wit’s end. His life changes when his brother Pete convinces him to go out for track and he is soon setting records including the high school record for the mile at 4:21. Pete introduces him to the philosophy “if you can take it, you can make it.” This will become prophetic. In another flash back , the “Torrance Tornado” attends the 1936 Munich Olympics and does very well for a rookie. He will be a favorite in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, unless something intervenes. That something is World War II.
Louie is still training for a future Olympics when his crew is sent on a routine search and rescue mission. Unfortunately, there new bomber is a rust bucket and ends up losing both left engines. “Prepare to crash” Capt. Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) stoically warns. The ditching leaves only Louie, Phil, and tail gunner Mac (Finn Wittrock) alive and floating in life rafts. One of them will not survive the sharks, lack of food and water, and a strafing by a Japanese plane. Louie gets picked up by a Japanese war ship after breaking Eddie Rickenbacker’s record for being in a life boat in the Pacific Ocean. A succession of prison camps ensues. Louie meets his bête noire in a camp outside Tokyo. Cpl. Watanabe (Miyavi) is nicknamed “The Bird” and is infamous for his sadism. He takes a particular interest in the famous American track star. His philosophy is to treat all prisoners as the enemy, but he focuses on Louie. His wooden staff is employed often on him. This builds to an especially vicious beating after Louie’s refusal to be used for propaganda purposes. The POWs know the war is approaching its close, but who will still be alive to sweat out the Japanese threat to eliminate survivors?
“Unbroken” is the type of war movie where I sat watching and kept wondering why I was not engaged with it. I have heard people I respect comment how powerful it is and how inspiring, but it was just a meh experience for me. I think it is the kind of war movie that entertains the general public more than war movie fans like myself. If you have seen as many prisoner of war movies as I have, you want a significant modern release to be spectacular. There is nothing spectacular about this film.
The acting is not special. O’Connell is sincere, but nothing separates his performance from an average biopic. Talk of an Academy Award nomination is unwarranted. The casting of a Japanese pop star as Watanabe has been done before (Ryuichi Sakamoto as Yonai in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”) and it just smacks of stunt casting. He does not get the schizophrenic madness of the real Watanabe down. The rest of the cast is given little to do. There is no character development other than Zamperini. All we get is camp scuttlebutt about why “The Bird” is the way he is. All that time on the life rafts is not enough to tell us anything about Phil and Mac.
For a movie written by the Coen brothers, it is curiously flat. They avoid most of the usual prisoner of war clichés, but do not break any new ground. We do get the “inmates do a play” trope (“Cinderella”), but no clandestine radio and no escape attempt (or any talk of one for that matter). The Coens are less cliché averse when it comes to the life raft scenes. Someone eats more than their share. There is a storm. There are sharks. Someone finds religion. Curiously, the script introduces some themes and then lets them lie. Zamperini’s post-war religious conversion is foreshadowed tepidly, but it appears Jolie wanted the audience to connect the dots without being shoved. This is curious considering Hollywood’s recent trend toward religiousity. Much more ably developed is the “if you can take it, you can make it” theme. The abuse Louie undergoes comes off more as “if he can take it” because he is singled out for a huge percentage of the brutal treatment. The movie gives off the impression that it really sucked to be Louis Zamperini, but if you were not him it was not so bad.
The big scenes are a mixed bag. The opening combat scene is average CGI with superior sound effects. Cutting away to the flashback before returning for the crash landing is a nice touch and falsely signaled a different type of war movie. The movie actually turns out to be quite standard. This is especially evident in the score which is satisfactory, but sounds exactly as you would expect a war epic to sound. The only outstanding scene is the strafing scene. Combining bullets with sharks is tres cool. The big showdown between Louie and Watanabe involving holding up the beam has Oscar bait written all over it. It allows Louie to establish his moral dominance over the villain and allows the villain to administer one more beating to cement his position in the Villain Hall of Fame. It also provided a link to the Crucifix that the young Louie gazed at in church.
The biggest weakness of the movie is no one’s fault. Zamperini’s story cannot be fit into a 2 ½ hour movie. It deserves a mini-series. The book can be divided into four parts. His rise to track star. The time in the rafts. The prisoner of war experience. The nightmare-ridden post-war years leading up to being born-again. The movie ends up hitting the high spots of the first three so it does summarize the book fairly well, but it does not go more than ankle deep. More distressing is the movie’s lack of balls in depicting how badly Allied prisoners were treated by the Japanese. It is a soft PG-13. The violence is muted and there is no soldier language. (No one says what they really think of “The Bird”.) It is laughable that some Japanese are upset with the movie. They should be sending a thank you card to Jolie. You leave the theater thinking that one of the guards was sadistic. However, realities like malnutrition, chronic diarrhea, and the brutalizing of prisoners who were not famous track stars is glossed over. Even Zamperini’s treatment is substantially ameliorated. For example, there is no mention of his being injected in several medical experiments. The fact is that over 25% of American captives died in Japanese captivity. This movie does not make this clear.
The strength of the film is its faithfulness to the book. It is like a Cliff Notes version. Jolie did not “enhance” the story much. Kudos to her for that. Many directors would have insisted on crowd-pleasing vengeance on the hissable villain. The liberties that are taken with the book are all acceptable. The movie pairs up well with the book and although people who have read the book already (like me) may be disappointed, people who have not will be rewarded with the details and the dot-fillings.
GRADE = C
Zamperini was a wild child. He started smoking at age 5 and drinking at age 8. He got in lots of fights and was heading in the wrong direction when his brother Pete intervened. Pete pushed Louie into the discipline of track and Louie went cold turkey on smoking and drinking. The movie accurately summarizes his success which included the high school mile record and the Olympics 5,000 meters race. He did set a record for the last lap. What the movie leaves out is his encounter with Hitler because der Fuhrer wanted to meet “the boy with the fast finish”.
The last mission was realistically depicted. “The Green Hornet” had a history of mechanical problems and did lose two engines. The 47 days at sea are toned down quite a bit. Mac was a much bigger problem, for instance. They were actually captured after coming ashore on a Japanese-held island. They had floated over 2,000 miles. Louie and Phil were treated fairly well until transferred to “Execution Island” in the Kwajalein atoll. The threatened beheadings are alluded to in the movie. The movie also calls the Japanese out for the murder of Marines captured on Makin Island, but the mistreatment is tame in comparison to what the two went through. No water-boarding is depicted. In fact, the one interrogation segment is lame.
The stint at Omori prison camp is also downplayed. Watanabe was deranged, but the movie does not portray his extreme mood swings well. He would beat the hell out of a prisoner (not just Louie), shower them with presents in remorse, then return to beating them. Much of the violence was for sexual release. Louie was forced to race three times. The scene at Radio Tokyo is almost exactly as depicted in the book including his message to his parents. He did refuse to be used for propaganda, but that was not the cause of the punching incident. In reality, Watanabe was punishing several officers (including Zamperini) for a theft. Prisoners were forced to punch the officers.
Louie was transferred to Naoetsu (the worst prison camp in Japan) due to his refusal to do more radio broadcasts. Surprisingly, Watanabe had earlier been posted there. The camp was a hard labor camp as shown in the movie, but it was worse. The lifting the beam scene is in the book. However, after holding it up for 37 minutes (the movie implies it was much longer), Watanabe cracked and punched Louie in the stomach. The beam fell, knocking him unconscious so the movie beating did not occur. Louie lifting the beam above his head in defiance is pure Hollywood. Curiously, the movie skips the plot to kill “The Bird”. The post scripts are all true, but the movie conveniently does not mention Louie’s post traumatic stress problems that led to a serious drinking problem. It took him years to fulfill his promise to dedicate his life to God.