' ' Cinema Romantico: Unbroken

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Aside from a thirst for competition, winning and losing, what elite distance runners often have in common is their tolerance for pain. And it is this tolerance that second-time director Angelina Jolie returns to again and again, over and over, time after time, in her cinematic rendition of the plight of real-life Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell). I have always thought of Zamperini as an Olympic athlete, running the 5000 meters in 1936 at Berlin, finishing eighth but tearing off his final lap so fast – in 56 seconds – it prompted Hitler to request a meet and greet with him. Of course, Zamperini was much more, a second lieutenant in the Air Force during WWII where a plane his plane crash-landed in the Pacific, stranding him and two others on a life raft for 47 days before he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced into torturous interment for the remainder of the conflict.

To put this extraordinary tale into context, Jolie, working in conjunction with an all-star squadron of screenwriters (Richard LaGravanese, William Nicholson, and Joel & Ethan Coen), provides several early-film flashbacks to account for Zamperini's past. She re-creates the Olympic race while also showing how running allowed him to emerge from a youthful shell of directionless vice and being picked on by bullies in passages evoking traditional Sports Movie blarney, a tone “Unbroken” emulates even as its content becomes more and more vicious. It sort of wants to unsettle but it mostly wants to inspire, and so the screenplay offers fortune cookie wisdom like the repeated mantra, “If you can take it, you can make it.” As in, if you can tolerate the pain, you can live to fight another day, reducing an otherwise remarkable story to wishy-washy wisdom.

As Louis wastes away on the raft in starkly rendered passages that are the film’s highlight, he makes a classic plea deal with God that should he emerge from these waters alive he will devote his life to the Lord and Savior. He gets out of those waters alive, sure enough, but once he is placed in shackles as an “enemy of Japan”, he must still adhere to his deal with the Man above, right? Thus, this version of his story essentially transforms into “The Passion of Louie.”

The POW camp is lorded over by Mutsuhiro Watanabe, “The Bird”, an infamous figure in Japanese history but one allowed no dimension on screen. In Laura Hillenbrand’s book on which the film is based, a Japanese camp accountant claimed that torturing prisoners aroused in “The Bird” a sadistic sexual delight. And the performance by Japanese pop star Miyavi, which is mostly one-note belligerence, does offer hints at this sexual sadism, though Jolie, perhaps thinking of holiday box office, is unwilling to take that fork in the road. She doesn't want to mute her hero's heroism, and so she frames even the most dire moments so handsomely that they stand in strange contrast to the terror occurring within them. Zamperini is lit less like Brando in "Apocalypse Now" than Heston in "The Ten Commandments."

She is also unwilling to show life as a POW of Japan as anything beyond a ceaseless pageant of excessive torture. There is no attempt to gain information from the Americans or to barter their lives. They are just vessels for brutal abuse, and the film overly fixates on the abuse of Zamperini, moving everyone else aside as he takes the cause of all his brothers-in-chains upon his shoulders, rendered quite literally in the sequence where he is forced to hold a wooden board aloft for over half-an-hour. Who does that remind you of? We are told of the perils of envisioning our sports stars as heroes and yet “Unbroken” goes one better (worse) by imagining Louis Zamperini as a Christ-figure.

To Jolie's credit, she does not simply follow the broad outline of his existence by handing out details like pieces of cheese in a foregone biopic maze so prone to theatrical release this time of year. Instead she marshals a few biographical details into a surprisingly lean movie that gives strict focus to a specific period of his life. Yet she still miscalculates, drawing that lean movie out to two hours and seventeen minutes and stripping away every ounce of her protagonist's characterization until all that's left is a symbolic pillar made to endure punishment to deliver his countrymen from bondage.


mercatiwriter@aol.com said...

I saw the movie and this review clarified several things that were left out or I didn't catch. Agree with needing more time with the POW's.
The punch line, about taking it and making it -- and
I love Angelina jolie -- sounded like a slogan on a cereal box.

Candice Frederick said...

gawd yes, it was ceaseless indeed, monotonous even