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Unbroken begins as a generic big budget war movie like any other – how many movies have opened with almost identical cockpit, mid-battle scenes? While the scenes may move from squeaky clean to parched to dust to soot, there is not a speck of true, atmospheric grit to be seen – glossy, slick, reeking of the polished, gold-plated plastic front that is Hollywood, this movie is as polished and artificial as Jolie herself.
Zamperini, wonderfully depicted by rising star Jack O’Connell, is laid clear from the start; he is the charmer, the joker, the big hearted friend who is there for you when you need him. After a lad is hit during the opening sky-high battle, he is there at his side, regardless of the shells swirling around him, smiling while hastily unbuttoning the boy’s uniform to examine his wounds. ‘You’re still very handsome,’ he jokes, ‘You make me sick.’
The first flashback, which ripples into view all of ten minutes in, reveals him to have been an unruly child, an easy target for bullies due to his lack of English and poor Italian family, we see him engaging in all manner of traditionally unruly behaviour, listed as a line up on screen before us; fights with his bullies, liqueur concealed within a painted bottle, cigarettes and peeping at girls (it seems that the sole purpose of the few female actors is to indicate that, in fact, Louis I quite the lady’s man). It is when running away after being caught – as he often is – that his brother Pete, already a member of the high school running team notices his potential, and coerces him to begin training. Queue here all Forrest Gump comparisons. It is here that the first citing of the movie’s mantra begins, and the first of brother Pete’s pearls of wisdom; ‘if you can take it, you can make it’. What isn’t so much as touched upon, however, is just how the mind-set of two brothers can be so different; we are left wondering why Louis has so little faith in himself – a belief he outright states, or why he has resigned himself to this fact. ‘I’m nothing – let me be nothing.’ Thankfully, his brother did not ‘let him be nothing’ and the Torrance Tornado was born.
We see the Tornado next in a brief scene of the young runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the red flag of the swastika hanging ominously in the background. A friendly nod is shared between himself and a fellow competitor; times are good, there is peace. He is no one’s enemy yet.
These nuggets are deliberately trivial, however. They do little to demonstrate to us ‘the making of Louis Zamperini’; they practically state to us outright that he learnt endurance, tolerance and determination through his brother’s devoted coaching and such apparently profound lines as ‘a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory’ – a wrongly reversed line which reads much better in Laura Hilenbrand’s book of the same name on which this movie is based; ‘a lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain’.
The Olympic flashback shatters as Zamperini and his fellows crash land into the Pacific, leaving only three survivors. The pace of the film comes to a shuddering halt as half an hour is devoted to depict the forty-seven days upon the lifeboat, with one of the three succumbing on day thirty-three. During this time, we see their rations devoured by a single survivor by day two, the men retch after attempting to eat raw seagull meat, use bait to catch fish – eaten ‘Japanese style’ – a series of near attacks by circling sharks, and a scene which leads us all to question which is preferable; being eaten by a shark or being shot by a Japanese bomber, and then eaten by a shark.
It comes as a strange moment of relief to see the ominous shadows emerge over the lifeboat as the survivors; Zamperini and Phillips (depicted by the brilliant Domhnall Gleeson – it’s a shame that he disappeared from the screen after the first half). By now we’re as bored as they must be, and perhaps half as mad. There is no increase of pace or energy however for the next hour and fifteen minutes. We move from the confines of the raft to the confines of Zamperini’s tiny isolation box in his first POW camp, Kwajalein, seeing him deteriorate further into madness, throwing himself manically against walls and screaming to the heavens, before moving on to the confines of the two later prison camps where he found himself. It feels wrong to complain about the pace of a movie one hundred and thirty-seven minutes long when compared to the sixteen months that the man himself spent floating on the ocean’s surface and suffering in POW camps, but I find I can’t help myself.
Jolie managed to round up a stellar team to work alongside her; the screenplay was seemingly half-heartedly written by the Coen Brothers, Richard La Graverese and William Nicholson, with Roger Deakins as cinematographer, while the role of executive producers was shared between Erwin Stoff and, perhaps more perplexingly, Clayton Townsend (whose producing credits include Bridesmaids, 40 year old virgin and Knocked up) and Matthew Baer, of really very little at all. However, while a nod has to go to Deakins for his stunning camera work (I recall one particularly beautiful shot of the gaunt POWs standing, as silhouettes, against their burning camp), they, all of them, missed an excellent opportunity with this movie.
Too much focus is placed on depicting Zamperini as a martyr. It seems at times that approximately 85% of lines spoken to him are a variation of ‘you can do it, Louis’, and the crucifix symbolism of the plank scene is unmistakable, the characters suddenly find themselves bathed in the glow of a rare winter sunlight as his defiance brings The infamous Bird to a weeping, shuddering breakdown. As for The Bird himself, just as Zamperini’s psychological build up is left amiss to us all, as is that of the psychotic Mutshiro Watanabe. Besides a few flirtatious glances from rockstar-cum-actor Miyavi, there are none of the homoerotic hints one would expect given Watanabe’s open confession to finding arousal from torturing his prisoners. There is no doubt as to Jolie’s devotion to the man himself, and to her task of doing him justice, but it seems as though every other character is there purely to help fuel Zamperini’s determination to survive; the suffering often seems all his own, they are simply witnesses who occasionally get in the way.
And what of the remains of Hillenbrand’s book, in which she looks at Zamperini’s journey from vengeful obsession to forgiveness through religion and eventually a career as a motivational speaker? While understandably, it is simply impossible to have covered everything in this already drastically cut film, it would be nice, just for once, not to see yet another war film revolving around the battles and the war camps, but about life post-war, and how those harrowing experiences inevitably effect a man.
With Jolie’s penchant for war-torn cinema, perhaps that could be a starting idea for her next directorial effort?