by Avi Davis
Director: Angelina Jolie
Featuring: Jack O’Connell, Domehall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Whitrock
Release Date: December 25, 2014
Review Date: January 5, 2015
In the first scene of Unbroken, we find ourselves floating in a bank of nimbus clouds, watching as what appear to be a flock of birds careen towards us.
A few seconds later and we hear the drone of plane engines, startled to realize that we are in the flight path, not of migrating geese, but of a squadron of bombers. Almost immediately, the fuselage of a World War II vintage B24 booms past us and we suddenly know we are in a time and place very different from our own.
This is scintillating film making, providing a raw introduction to a desperate era, when American air force pilots were manning drafty, unreliable aircraft that were seemingly held together by tape and glue. The bomber, on this particular run, releases its payload on a Japanese occupied Pacific island below it but its loading bay jams and will not retract, making it impossible for the pilot to properly descend his landing gear. As the plane heads for home, the plane’s problems are compounded when flak pounds the disabled plane and a Japanese fighter appears out of nowhere to spray the Americans with a deadly round of bullets. With two men severely injured, the plane must limp home and attempt a landing almost on its belly.
So begins Unbroken with the promise of a roiling adventure story that is fraught with unexpected dangers and perils.
And so it is. But the action is fairly short lived and the movie slowly winds down to a gritty tale of sheer endurance – both for the film’s lead character and for the audience – in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Its tale of inhumanity, steel eyed determination and an ultimate redemption is a long time in coming.
But first things first. This is the story of the war time travails of one Louis Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic athlete and competitor in the 5,000 meter dash at the Berlin Olympics, who finds himself, six years later, a bombardier on one of the creaky planes that the U.S. Air Force hastily (and perhaps unadvisedly) commissioned into action in the early 1940s.
His back story, provided via flashbacks, is filled in as he waits anxiously with his other six crew men to land their plane in the hope it does not break apart upon landing.
Here we find the young Louis, a truant Italian kid in a nondescript mid- western town, stealing cigarettes and getting involved in scuffles with the local gang and thereafter being hauled off by the local constable to face a dressing down from his father. His older brother, an athlete, decides that the way to lift the ten-year-old out of his certain destiny as a jailbird is to turn him on to running for which he seems to think he might have some talent. The scene which follows, lifted straight out of Forest Gump, portrays the young Louis transforming, while running along a country road, into the adolescent Louis who then matures into the 22 -year -old character played ultimately by Jack O’ Donnell. A later scene will show Louis arriving for the Berlin Olympics and competing in the 5,000 meters at which he places a respectable eighth.
So much for the back story. Louis and his crew, sans one, survive the crash landing of their plane and engage in some well earned R&R, when they are informed that they must immediately undertake a search and rescue mission for a downed plane. But no sooner are they gazing over long endless stretches of Pacific Ocean for the missing airmen, than their own plane’s left engines give out and the crew realizes that they must ditch in the sea.
What follows is the most graphic recreation of a crash landing since Castaway. The plane essentially falls apart upon contact with the water and the crew members are shown desperately attempting to save themselves as the fuselage collapses and quickly sinks. Louis, trapped, is finally able to pry himself loose as the plane descends to the ocean floor. Breaking the surface he sees that two others have survived – the pilot and the machine gunner who have managed to inflate two life rafts. Thereafter the three men must survive searing heat, thirst, hunger, shark attacks, storms, strafing from Japanese fighters and each other as they float helplessly on the ocean for 47 days. In the course of this harrowing experience they lose Mack the machine gunner, whose corpse they choose not to cannibalize but consign to the deep.
Their ultimate rescue, by a Japanese cruiser, is not exactly a godsend since their immediate internment begins a long period of barbaric confinement and torture.
It is here that the story essentially stops and we are witness to two years of brutal treatment of American prisoners at the hands of Japanese prison guards. For some obscure reason (it is never entirely explained in the film) the prison warden, dubbed by the American prisoners “The Bird” takes a particular interest in his Olympian prize and invents all kinds of tests of the airman’s resolve. The cold Spartan life, which the POWs are forced to endure is conveyed by Jolie with no attempts to cover up the sheer inhumanity of the experience. Bare, uninsulated barracks, hard board planks as beds, a grueling exercise regimen in below freezing weather and regular latrine duty is the quotidian lot of these men.
Ultimately the “The Bird ” is reassigned, but so are the men of the POW camp as Louis and his nemesis come face to face yet again.
The second half of the film is constructed as a test of wills between”The Bird” (played by an insouciant Miyavi – in real life, a Japanese rock star) and Louis, who is constantly reminded in his mind of his brother’s admonition to play to win. His spirit, unbroken by the violence that is visited upon him, is justly celebrated as the mark of a great American – a brutalized young man who determinedly refuses, the entreaties of his captors who will offer a modicum of freedom, in exchange for his agreement to turn traitor and send weekly broadcasts of his good treatment over the airwaves back to mainland America.
And of course there is indeed something stirring about this man’s determination to survive and to never give in to the humiliations and privations that are repeatedly visited upon him. Yet in making this point Director Angelina Jolie loses the soul of her movie, dwelling endlessly on Louis’ pain and suffering without providing any context or understanding for the motivations behind his captor’s endless infliction of pain. Although this movie should not have attempted in glamorize the life of a torturer and vicious Commandant, some back story as to how this young Japanese man, almost the same age as Louis, became so irretrievably twisted and why he saw in Louis the most fitting target to enact his fearsome crimes, might have been appropriate.
For all that, Unbroken does not fail as a movie. In places it in fact shines magnificently as a testament to the human will to survive even the most gruesome barbarity – the same point made in the best films about the Holocaust. Its only true fault is that it gives over this story in a rather prosaic manner which adds very little to the story of survival under Japanese hegemony in such films as Bridge On the River Kwai.
But before leaving Unbroken I must give the movie credit for two areas of film making that are notoriously underappreciated – costuming and make up. The World War II period uniforms and hairstyles are presented with delicate accuracy and believability – from the parting in Jack O’ Donnell’s quaff to the creases in his fatigues. They lend the film a stunning immediacy it might not have otherwise have possessed. So too the make up – particularly the scenes of the parched lipped airmen on the floating rafts and later the incarcerated POWs in the Pacific jungles – everything is done to provide authenticity and it goes a long way to highlighting the mens’ desperate quest for survival.
Perhaps the greatest statement of our hero’s determination comes at the end when we see documentary footage of the aged Louis, now in his 70s, carrying the Olympic torch to be lit – in, of all places, Japan. Jolie gives little time to Louis’ post-war struggles, documented so powerfully in the Hildebrand book – to overcome his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and his ultimate embrace of Christianity, which he attributes to saving his life.
Maybe that latter day episode in Louis Zamperini’s life presents the framework for an entirely different movie. But meanwhile this film’s impact can be summed up quite simply: I very much wanted to learn more about the man and what drove him to his feats of endurance. Films are really just teasers and we can’t expect them to dole out every piece of information about a real or ficitional character’s life or purpose in a mere two hours. So if a film is able to leave us with a desire to uncover, through outside sources, more about its hero’s motivations and drive, in order to find some way to bring his example of strength and vitality into our own lives, then we should not hesitate to credit that film a great success.