To see the mixed-to-negative critical response to Unbroken is to be reminded that expectations are brutal, and in less than two weeks, we’ll see if we’re reminded that the lure of Oscar-bait transcends even bad reviews. On the surface, Unbroken would seem to be a sure bet, telling the story of an authentic American legend who was an Olympic athlete, then a solider in WWII, then a POW, and finally a forgiver. Directed by a star making her first foray into epic-scale filmmaking, a script by four renowned writers, and the resources of a major studio–plus a promising young actor in the lead–how could it miss?
By curtailing the full scope of its protagonist’s journey. By not depicting his personal growth, but simply the trials he endured. By failing to embrace the spiritual themes which so clearly run through it.
Unbroken is far from a bad film. But it’s not too close to being a great one, either.
The film tells the story of Louis Zamperini (who passed away at age 97 this past year), the son of Italian immigrants, who was something of a delinquent in his youth, and found an outlet for his restless energy in foot-racing. He ultimately qualified for the 1936 Olympics, and while he and the U.S. team did not win, his performance was impressive. When war broke out, he enlisted and was posted to the Pacific, where he became a bombardier.
When the plane he was flying in crashed, he and two others were left adrift at sea for 47 days; one died, and their bad luck was compounded when they fell into the hands of the Japanese. Imprisoned, they were ultimately sent to a camp near Tokyo, where a sadistic officer nicknamed “The Bird” singled Zamperini out for abuse. He was briefly spared when Radio Tokyo gave him a chance to speak on the air to prove that he was still alive, but when ordered to deliver anti-American propaganda, he refused.
Ultimately, despite the Bird’s punishments (and in a cruel twist, he had to deal with the Bird at two separate camps), he survived to see the war’s end, and went home, ultimately overcoming the psychological traumas of war and finding solace in his faith (according to Wikipedia, his religious awakening was influenced by Billy Graham, whom he knew personally). He returned to Japan to find and forgive his former captors, and “only the Bird refused to see him.”
Despite the breadth of Zamperini’s accomplishments, the film focuses almost exclusively on his wartime experiences, especially the time on the raft and his term as a POW. His running career is mostly dealt with in two flashbacks, and his postwar experience is relegated to a few screens of text (with a bit of footage of the real Zamperini); nearly 70 years are covered in, perhaps, two minutes.
And frustratingly so, for it was in his athletic career and his coming to terms with the war via faith and forgiveness that distinguish his biography, yet the film focuses on the trials of war. Even his participation in the Berlin Olympics is rather quickly dealt with; just looking at his Wikipedia page, there’s plenty of material to be covered there (and his life from 1936 to 1942-3 is totally glossed over).
One has to wonder why, with such a life to draw from, did Jolie and the writers opt for such a narrow focus (not that his wartime experiences weren’t dramatic in of themselves). Was cost a factor? The budget, as far as I can find, was $65 million, not that lavish for a prestige picture. Was time an issue? Zamperini died this past July, but I believe he was able to see a rough cut before his death. Whatever the case, to know the full story is to lament what might have been.
But even taking the film as we have it, it leaves a fair amount to be desired. While a positive portrayal of Zamperini is to be expected (and apparently, post-war/pre-conversion, he struggled with alcoholism and PTSD), the film lacks much sense of his inner life–the whole point of the film, at least according to the promotion materials, is that he persevered and survived a horrific ordeal, but how is mostly explained by a few aphorisms and a number of soulful looks from Jack O’Connell, who plays Zamperini as something of an Everyman.
Speaking of Everyman, the film’s treatment of faith and religion is erratic, and ultimately one of its principal shortcomings. Zamperini’s mother, we see, is a devout Catholic, and while on the life-raft, during a storm, he swears to God that if He delivers him to safety, he will dedicate his life to Him. And, in the scene depicted on the primary poster, he is forced by the Bird to hold a wooden beam above his head, and his defiant success at this causes the Bird to lose control and beat him. The crucifixion imagery is hardly subtle, and in embracing the Christian themes which Zamperini later embraced absolutely, it becomes one of the most successful of the film.
But is the Zamperini of the film driven to survive by his faith in God? Does he survive because his older brother Pete (Alex Russell) tells him, “If you can take it, you can make it”? Does he survive because that is the primal urge of the human being–to survive? The Zamperini of the film is ultimately kind of a cipher, admirably resourceful and amiable, but ultimately he suffers handsomely and little more. Given what the film asks of him, O’Connell does a good job, but he doesn’t really animate the character beyond what the script allows.
And let’s talk about that script for a bit, and the men who wrote it. First off, there are the Coen brothers. We all know and love them. And they’ve got a pretty distinct style. That style is not much on display here (there are flickers of dark or deadpan humor which might have been their doing, but otherwise, I couldn’t discern their hand). Personally, I find that a shame. Then there’s Richard LaGravenese, who came to prominence with The Fisher King but has since focused mostly on romantic/sentimental material (he’s also done some directing, including the underrated Beautiful Creatures). I haven’t seen enough of his work to say what his style is, per se, but the film definitely has its sentimental side.
And lastly, there’s William Nicholson, whose career has been rather checkered; Shadowlands was apparently excellent (and got him an Oscar nomination), and he was also nominated for Gladiator’s script (which…eh), but he was also responsible for the appalling script for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and his petty reaction to the film’s failure is rather telling. And the two films share similar faults, especially in that both lack much psychological insight into their characters, and tend towards hagiography (though Mandela embraces it). Unbroken is a better script than Mandela, but I really hope it doesn’t somehow get an Oscar nomination. It’s definitely not that good.
An Oscar nomination will likely come to Roger Deakins for his cinematography, which would make his 12th nomination; he has yet to win, even though his work on Skyfall should have, and his work on Prisoners was better than Gravity‘s (ironically, Emmanuel Lubezki will likely win again this year for Birdman, and this time deserves to), which is to say nothing of True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James, Fargo, The Shawshank Redemption, etc.
His work here, though, doesn’t reach the heights of his best work. There are some great images, to be sure: Zamperini’s eye peering into a bomb sight, the POWs silhouetted against the flames of a nightly air raid on Tokyo, or the men on the raft being tossed by a cobalt-blue sea against a gray and gold sky. For the most part, though, the cinematography is simply good. Normally, that would be enough, but knowing what Deakins can do, I felt a bit disappointed.
I have no frame of reference for Jolie’s direction (I haven’t seen her first film, In the Land of Blood and Honey; its reviews are mixed), but she does stage some impressive moments, especially the opening bombing raid, which on a big screen with a good sound system is a decidedly visceral experience. The raft sequence, and the second half of the film (which is mostly set in POW camps), likewise convey the soul-crushing nature of imprisonment, and when the war ends, as the other prisoners cheer and celebrate, Zamperini stands in thankful silence, and goes alone to the Bird’s (now deserted) quarters and sees a picture of the Bird as a child, alongside his military-officer father. It’s a nicely subdued way of handling it.
Other sequences fare less well. The depiction of Zamperini’s youth, in particular, is hampered by the incredibly mild nature of his deliquency: he looks at women in church! He drinks (out of bottles painted white to look like milk bottles)! He smokes! And in a weird moment, a policeman tells him he hasn’t been punished more harshly because of the esteem his parents are held in; immediately after, his father tells him that they are not wanted (the parents speak little if any English), and that his behavior makes their position more difficult. (Yet according to Wikipedia, Zamperini’s father taught him how to fight, which I would personally find more compelling.)
Of course, Zamperini’s running ability is discovered when he runs from trouble; he quickly becomes a top-notch runner, and his growing fame is conveyed via some truly awful sportscaster monologues (seriously, they sound so fake it’s ridiculous). Jolie stages the sequences competently, but they feel hamfisted, even obligatory. And again, his trip to the Olympics is tossed off in about 5 minutes; surely this merited a little more screentime than that? But, then again, the film runs a fairly lean 137 minutes–I assumed initially that it would be close to if not more than three hours long, and a longer film would have ideally included more of his story.
It’s a film that once tries to include too much and not enough. Its priorities, as far as I’m concerned, are ultimately misplaced.
It plays the standard villain-is-more-interesting-than-the-hero gambit in the form of the Bird, real name Mutsuhiro Watanabe, played by Japanese singer Miyavi. According to Watanabe’s own Wikipedia page, there were sexual overtones to his treatment of prisoners, and Miyavi’s performance does not shy away from these; his lilting voice, teasing manner (a bit where he mockingly voices Zamperini’s mother is memorably hateful), and severe mood swings (which I wish the film had made more use of) all add to the unnerving air of the Bird.
Miyavi had been pegged as an early Oscar contender, yet for a role so clearly meant to be the breakout character, he doesn’t quite dominate the film quite enough to justify it. He is good, though, and he would at least make a more worthy nominee than Robert Duvall (and possibly Ethan Hawke as well).
The only other performance in the film really worth mentioning is Domhnall Gleeson as Russell “Phil” Phillips, Zamperini’s pilot and friend who is later stranded on the raft and especially mistreated in the prisons. Although he is not seen in the last act of the film, we learn that the real Phillips survived the war and lived a long life. I quite liked Gleeson’s work in Frank, and I recall his short role alongside his father in Calvary being memorable as well. Here, he plays Phil as a man of low-key faith (likely an influence on Zamperini’s oath to God during the storm) and gentle humor, and because we see only glimpses of his torture, it is perhaps more affecting than what Zamperini endures.
Alexandre Desplat’s score is, as one would expect from Desplat, excellent; it doesn’t have the sprightliness of The Grand Budapest Hotel or the jauntiness of The Monuments Men (I don’t remember his score from Godzilla well enough to comment on it, but suffice to say, he had a good year), but it’s a suitably sweeping and evocative piece. On the other hand, the Coldplay song “Miracles”, which comes at the start of the end credits, is hideously cheesy.
For all my complaints about it, I found Unbroken generally engaging and well-made. It’s not a film I can strongly recommend–I’m sure reading Laura Hillenbrand’s book would be a more rewarding experience–but one could certainly do worse.