Universal (2014) 137 min. PG-13
Director: Angelina Jolie
Screenplay: Joel & Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese & William Nicholson; based on novel Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Cinematography: Roger Deakins; Editing: Tim Squyres; Production Design: Jon Hutman; Set Decoration: Lisa Thompson; Costumes: Louise Frogley; Score: Alexandre Desplat
Stars: Jack O’Connell (Louis Zamperini), Domhnall Gleeson (Phil), Finn Wittrock (Mac), Miyavi (Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe), Garrett Hedlund (Fitzgerald), Alex Russell (Pete Zamperini), Jai Courtney (Cup), C.J. Valleroy (Young Louie), Shinji Ogata (Japanese Translator), Taki Abe (Radio Tokyo Man)
From the title alone I should have had an inkling of what to expect from this Angelina Jolie directed adaptation of Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 bestseller about Italian-American bombardier Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and his POW experiences in a Japanese internment camp on Tokyo during WWII.
The book touched millions of readers deeply but as a movie, Unbroken seems a grueling endurance test, an exercise in masochism in which the hero is subjected to an ever increasing litany of sadism as he descends through his seven layers of hell, an experience which is somehow meant to have purified him spiritually. Despite the surge of inspirational uplift however, this pulpy movie derives its juice straight from the unspeakable atrocities it piles on. In lieu of purple hearts, it trades in the most violent of purple passions.
Unbroken is an unduly pious, globetrotting odyssey celebrating religion for granting true believers the fortitude and animal will to survive even under the most appalling of circumstances. To have this movie tell it, the untold numbers who died in the internment camps of WWII were being punished for their lack of faith. Unbroken achieves most of its psychological effects through the contrast of extremes. From being cast on the open sea and placed at the utter mercy of the elements, Zamperini is thrown by his Japanese captors into a mousetrap of a holding cell where he’s deprived of light, air, water, room to breathe. From the sweltering Pacific sun which burns him to a crisp, he’s shipped to the snowy mountain recesses where he’s frozen into a shivering ice cube.
Unbroken’s ongoing sick joke is that the hapless Zamperini should be careful what he asks for because though his prayer may be answered, it always seems to backfire on him in some way. Despite the spiritual platitudes, the movie depicts God working in such mysterious ways he comes across as a sadistic cosmic joker. Zamperini will send up a flare to hail a passing plane for instance, only to have the life raft sustaining him and his crew of castaways suddenly riddled by the enemy fire he’s drawn. His silent prayers to be delivered from “The Bird” (Miyavi), the brutal camp commandant who has it in for him, are likewise answered when The Bird is promoted from his present post, only to reappear later in charge of the next detainment camp Zamperini is shipped to. The hero’s experiences, as recounted here, play like a running gag, a consistent good news-bad news situation that feels to be mounting to a big punch line that never comes.
A dramatized character hasn’t had cruel fate so stacked against him since the days of Dickens and such outrageous dumb luck is heaped upon the hero’s unflaggingly noble brow here, he becomes the sort of hapless, unjustly persecuted innocent that might have been dreamed up in the pages of a de Sade novel. This is Midnight Express for the new millennium and I can’t imagine anyone fully enjoying the film without getting some slight kick out of the extreme degree of suffering Zamperini is subjected to over the course of events. But then that’s its primary appeal. If the opening titles didn’t decree Unbroken to be a true story no one would have believed it considering the way the director keeps ratcheting up the mounting indignations against our hero. If further proof were needed that Zamperini is indeed in hell, his contingent of soldiers are eventually herded into a Dachau-like work camp referred to as the end of the line when the Allies make their final push into Japanese held territory. Here they’re forced to mine coal from the bowels of the earth, and soot-covered from head to toe so only their bright eyes pierce the inky blackness, resemble charred demons crawled up from the fiery pit. A visual demonstration of the mantra that older brother (played by John D’Leo as a child and as an adult by Alex Russell) who mentors Zamperini in track coins, ‘if you can take it, you can make it,’ Unbroken is unremitting about showing us precisely how much he can take. The film is, at core, Zamperini’s own evangelical variation on the passion of Christ, telling us that it’s only through physical torment and self-flagellation that one becomes truly worthy of divine grace, and there’s something unsavory about such a masochistic philosophy. In one scene, rather than sacrifice an innocent man who’ll be beaten in his place, Zamperini begs for the abuse from one interred soldier after another when the company is ordered by their sadistic guards to pull a train and slug him in succession. This sequence makes his function in the drama unmistakable. He’s suffering for all our sins, strong enough to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, like that beam near the end, his own wooden cross to bear. Unbroken has appropriated the visual schematics of the Jewish experience at the death camps for the purpose of turning it to Christian allegory.
In the beginning, relapsed Roman Catholic Zamperini shamefacedly observes his mother and war buddies at their daily prayers, while lacking the humility to submit to God’s will himself, so subsequent events have been shaped as the spiritual redemption of a sinner. Adrift at sea he strikes a deal most everyone has made at the nadir of their own lives, promising to be devout if God will only see fit to deliver him from his hopeless circumstances. But considering that Zamperini has already been redeemed before the war even begins, through the agency of running track, maintaining another long held belief that the sick of mind and body can be cured through diligent, hard labor, we can’t quite fathom what precisely he’s being punished for at the point the story takes off from. He wasn’t all that bad to begin with. Nevertheless, his torture and tribulations are meant to martyr him, bringing him closer to the God he’s too proud to acknowledge openly, his unusual avenue to spiritual rapture lying in how much abuse he can take without caving. This film reimagines the lives of the saints, where being scourged and pilloried turns the unbroken Zamperini into an incorruptible. Unfortunately the warmed over script, which saw the drafting of at least four credited hands including the Coen brothers (whose darkly satirical touch is nowhere in evidence), has neglected to work in any sense of the nirvana he was supposed to have attained through this agonizing ordeal. The last part of Hillenbrand’s bestseller, which focused more on born again Zamperini’s Christianity was jettisoned, according to the director, at Zamperini’s own request to make his dawning spirituality seem more universal. But for a film directed by a woman with such strong liberal leanings, Unbroken still feels angled to appeal more strongly to the conservative sentiments of the Christian right. Zamperini’s wartime ordeal has been conceived by Jolie after the Stations of the Cross.
Dramatically, what’s been left of the gutted novel constitutes the contest of wills between recalcitrant Zamperini and the camp commandant intent on breaking his spirit by working him over time and again. His iron will which causes him to refuse to admit defeat and to keep getting back up, like Cool Hand Luke, even after he’s knocked down repeatedly with a rattan cane or topples over headlong in his unconditioned, malnourished state while trying to race a guard, is meant to keep hope alive in the other prisoners. Zamperini’s own grit and determination inspires them to remain calm and keep carrying on, the way building that bridge did on the River Kwai or mule headed Steve McQueen’s dogged liberation attempts did in The Great Escape. We’re meant to be equally impressed by his resilience and stamina, his willingness to submit to being abused for the duration, proving himself in it for the long haul like the cross-country sprinter he was.
Imperviousness to harsh discipline appears to have constituted the character’s makeup from the very beginnings, as we see Zamperini as a bambino (played by C.J. Valleroy) throttled by cops, belted by his dad and beaten by bullies for being a wop. His subsequent, near obsessive striving for accomplishment is a form of overcompensation. He wants to make something of himself as an all-American athlete to overcome the onus of being un-American, a perception which fellow track star Jesse Owens was likewise struggling to achieve at the time, explaining the fleeting sense of kinship Zamperini experiences when he spots him from afar at the Olympics. They’re both striving to show all those who would try to crush their spirit and keep them down that they can’t be broken. But curiously, while much emphasis is placed on Zamperini having been a first generation Italian immigrant, no mention is made of the fact that Italy was actually an ally of the axis powers during WWII. If the guards at the internment camp know everything else about his past, they should be aware of his heritage as well. One would think the knowledge would confer special treatment on him rather than vice versa, while simultaneously inciting the suspicion and mistrust of his fellow prisoners. Especially when a snitch seems to be their midst with the intel somehow leaked concerning a hidden map the POWs have traced of enemy military maneuvers on Saipan. But this suggestion of Stalag 17 ends up leading nowhere.
Unbroken is actually broken into four big, episodic set pieces, and while Jolie lurches between past and present in a pretty ham handed fashion, any one of these sections could’ve provided the basis for a decent film in its own right. Stitched together into one big whole however dissipates the impact. Skimming the surface to cover more ground, it becomes a bit much to chew on. From the initial aerial dog fights and bombings we flash back to Zamperini’s formative years as a juvenile delinquent who finds salvation through running, Chariots of Fire-style, leading to his competition in the 1938 Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany. While one feels, in light of his later experiences, that more should have been made of this event, where we see Zamperini racing alongside fellow Japanese contenders, it’s treated in an entirely extraneous manner. These Depression era track scenes are meant to have formed the core of Zamperini’s indefatigable character but rather than showing us how precisely they served to make him unbreakable, they’ve simply been patterned after the racing scenes in Gary Ross’ adaptation of Seabiscuit, with humans standing in place of the horses.
Movies like All is Lost, Life of Pi and Ron Howard’s upcoming In the Heart of the Sea have made the Robinson Crusoe like existentialism of man both at one with and at war with the natural elements a familiar film theme, and Unbroken throws its hat into this arena. The middle section concerns Zamperini’s never-say-die determination to weather the waves after crashing in the middle of the Pacific with Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock), the other two survivors of his downed plane. At sea for nearly two months, we see them starve and dehydrate, burn and blister beneath the merciless scorching sun from which the open sea offers no respite. This incident, which intentionally recalls the horrifying story recounted in Jaws involving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during the war, underscores the threat posed to our castaways by the sharks which circle incessantly like vultures. Not content just waiting for them to kick the bucket, these great whites decide to help them along by bumping the bottom of their fragile rubber life rafts, or in a more direct homage to Jaws, rearing up out of the sea to snap at any dangling appendages, sending the men scurrying for safety when they’re forced over the sides to escape the enemy air fire raining down on them from above.
Apart from Miyavi’s camp commandant in the second half, the film’s other standout performance is delivered in this section by Finn Wittrock who was so creepily effective as the killer clown on American Horror Story: Freakshow last season. He remains true to form here as the whining, craven, self-entitled castaway, who selfishly consumes the other men’s provisions while they sleep, and proves the first to break down in hysterics whenever events take a nosedive. He’s here to make Zamperini’s steel resolve seem all the more admirably heroic and few actors are as expert at being as intensely unlikable. His character manages to redeem himself along the way, but a suitable ending has been reserved for him that seems intended to reference Open Water. And yet things just go downhill from here. At least the soldiers knew where they stood with the sharks, with the inscrutable Oriental enemy, as the film would have it, you just never can tell. The dark heart of the film, the crux supporting Unbroken’s central theme is the adversarial relationship between Zamperini and the commandant of his internment camp, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, which is unfortunately never fully explored to our satisfaction. Their powerful, intriguing one-two punch could have anchored director Jolie’s whole sprawling odyssey of divine degradation, but it’s been spread so thin it becomes shallow. Every time the relationship seems to be taking a new or unexpected turn, the script backs off, meaning despite the fleet of adaptors, the film still feels only half written. This lack of development leaves the short, electrifying scenes of confrontation between the two men generally transpiring in identical fashion, without much variety or dramatic progression. So the second half tends to become a tad repetitious, with one bright exception when Zamperini is taken out of the camp and offered the chance to speak over the radio if he’ll read scripted anti-American propaganda on air.
Worse, “The Bird,” played by Japanese rock singer Miyavi, after an intriguing, show-stopping intro, is allowed to slip into broadly caricatured villainy, which is a shame since this seasoned concert performer with his fluid, gracile, deceptively placid flair gives every indication of having been capable of giving a subtly nuanced debut performance in the grand manner. He might’ve pulled it off if he’d been accorded a few finely shaded scenes all to himself, or even a moment alone with his fellow guards in order to connect more directly with the audience by showing us other facets to the character besides the sickening streak of viciousness. The only side we see of him is the one Zamperini did, pretty much twisted, power-mad human nature at its worst, like Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. The closest we come to a moment of quiet reflection is when Zamperini ventures into the guards’ private quarters after the camp has been liberated and finds The Bird’s abandoned bunk with a framed portrait of him as a boy with his imposing father towering over him.
The Bird singles out Zamperini for special abuse the same way a normal thinking person would shower affection on a favored pet, and in some weird, warped way he may even consider them close, assuring him they might have been friends under other circumstances. Just as Zamperini had felt a bond with Jesse Owens at the Olympics, The Bird feels a kinship of his own with Zamperini as another defiant, proud survivor. Despite his own cruel treatment at the hands of his father, The Bird too remains unbroken, only in his case he can’t forgive and instead exorcises his bruising memories through sadistic abuses of power and mistreatment of the men in his charge. What the movie intriguingly hints at, without realizing it, is the sadomasochistic co-dependence between abuser and victim, a sort of sub-Stockholm Syndrome that there must be some psychological classification for in the literature. The Bird sees this Olympic athlete who’s received the world’s acclaim in his short life as an affront to his own failure to rise as high in the imperial army as his name and rank would have permitted.
Humiliating, debasing and taking his frustrations out on Zamperini allows The Bird to feel superior to the successful types his father has compared him unfavorably to all his life and, in a more subliminal, unspoken way, to the whites who regard his race as inferior to theirs, as surviving WWII propaganda from the time attests. By intimidating this esteemed Olympic athlete, destroying him in body and spirit, The Bird can demonstrate that he is in fact the stronger of the two comparatively speaking, affirming in his own mind that he’s not the disgrace his honorable ancestors perceive him to be. The only time The Bird shows anything approaching kindness toward his prisoner occurs after his promotion to a higher rank, which temporarily alleviates his feelings of inadequacy. In all other instances, he can only experience a sense of self-worth by breaking his captive’s will. Reducing Zamperini to his present, degraded state, humbling and hobbling him, pushing him far past the point of endurance is the one thing stoking The Bird’s fragile ego.
Conditioning Zamperini not to look him in the eye, think of himself as an equal, he beats him when he dares glance his way and beats him again later when he won’t, confirming our suspicion that he’s going to be victimized either way, that The Bird is just looking for any excuse. And it’s a purely personal vendetta. When another soldier, Garrett Hedlund’s Fitzgerald, boldly stares him down from across the courtyard for instance, he takes no action against him. It’s under The Bird’s pointed torments that Zamperini’s unbreakable will is most sorely tested, leaving him a nervous wreck in constant danger of breaking down and buckling under. The way every muscle freezes up when his captor slips onto the bench beside him or, swooning, he nearly topples over in a dead faint upon discovering The Bird is commandant of the new labor camp he’s just been transferred to, tells us he’s not far from snapping and becoming a raving loon. His mind is practically gone by film’s end, like Brad Davis in Midnight Express, from the state of abject terror he lives in, constantly fearing for his life.
Jolie nearly caught gold in her hand here, but no one seemed to know what to do with the material or how to properly develop this unusual relationship into anything dramatically sound, so it just sort of subsists there at a very superficial level that constantly verges on the edge of camp, leaving us with no feeling of resolution. It’s a sense of incompletion that the movie exploits at the end, by relating that its hero never got the sense of closure he pursued either, was never able to reach that long-sought after emotional finish line by reconnecting with The Bird, who refused to meet up with him again after the war, when Zamperini reached out in hopes of laying their past issues to rest. The script uses this as proof of The Bird’s entrenched evil, but he may have been more motivated to remain in hiding by his record as a war criminal wanted for his crimes against humanity. Then again one could just as easily understand his reluctance to cooperate with what amounted to moral blackmail on Zamperini’s part. Publicizing how he’d found it in his heart to forgive his heathen captors must have given this reborn Olympic runner a smugly satisfying sense of moral superiority. Turning the other cheek made him an even more heroic, Christ-like martyr in the world’s eyes, definitively proving that he’d been the bigger man all along.
But the movie, which just leaves all the hackles it raises hanging, makes no effort to afford the audience the option of exorcising their emotions in a similarly cathartic manner. The way Unbroken expertly manipulates viewers into empathizing with Zamperini as he’s subjected to ever more extreme tortures at the hands of his sadistic Japanese handlers seems exclusively intended to rile them at his powerlessness to fight back, making us want to step in and fight back for him. Unbroken doesn’t release its visceral grip on viewers easily, despite the epilogue’s halfhearted sentiment that one should never let the land of the rising sun set on their anger. While Miyavi, a popular, established entertainer in his home land was astutely cast to temper perceptions of the film as racist when released in more sensitive, overseas markets, Unbroken still seems to be demonizing the Japanese for their flagrant disregard of the Geneva Convention in the brutal, inhumane treatment of white POWs. Yet no mention is made of the fate that befell other Asians interred in these camps, much less that of Japanese-Americans placed in not entirely dissimilar straits back in the good ole U.S. of A. at the time. Are the citizens rounded up and interred in concentration camps on the West coast likewise meant to be sanctified for finding it in their heart to absolve the government for its inhumane treatment of them?
Unbroken’s final sentiment which, like Jolie’s A Mighty Heart advances the very Christian virtue of turning the other cheek, seems patently absurd in light of the knee-jerk reaction invoked in viewers at the outrages committed by the imperial army. We certainly aren’t meant to be sent away with any particular love for the Japanese land or its peoples (there’s a reason why Zamperini kisses the ground he walks upon after making his way back to American soil), any more than viewers felt particularly endeared to the Vietcong after those Russian roulette scenes in The Deer Hunter. So we can’t be quite sure how to respond at the end watching documentary footage of Zamperini returning as an old man to Japan where he’s now cheered and applauded while carrying a leg of the Olympic torch, or when we see the bodies of the innocent Japanese civilians killed in an air raid by U.S. bombers laid out on the ground in a lingering image modeled after that famous shot of the war wounded in Gone with the Wind. The Air Force bombings Zamperini endures while imprisoned here on Japanese held soil are the same sort he was earlier seen perpetrating himself as a bombardier. But while one would think the point might be to show us how the worm has turned now that he’s being given some of the same medicine, that’s not the effect that comes across at all. Instead we’re meant to see irony in the fact that this persecuted track star just can’t win; even when the shoe is on the other foot he consistently ends up on the wrong side of safety.
Physical punishment is ingrained into the very sinews of star Jack O’Connell’s characterization. Actors pride themselves on suffering for their art, but there are depths and degrees no one should subject themselves to for the sake of dramatic fiction. Unbroken’s lead went all out for this one, dying his hair an oily black and starving his body into an emaciated shadow of its former self, and surely a director less gaunt than Jolie would have expressed some slight reservations upon seeing him slowly wasting away to prove his dedication to the craft. Co-star Domhnall Gleeson is even more painfully thin but since the film doesn’t afford us any glimpses of him toned and fit from earlier, the way Jolie’s camera gingerly fixates on the muscular cordons of O’Connell’s bare torso, we can’t measure the extent of his sacrifice in the same manner. It must have been to O’Connell’s consternation given how much he gave to this role to have critics largely profess indifference to the film intended to introduce him to a wide audience, while claiming to have found him more impressive in the little British sleepers Starred Up, which no one saw earlier in the year, and ’71 which hasn’t been released yet. Even though Unbroken doesn’t allow us to fully appreciate O’Connell’s considerable achievement, he’s still as impressive as could be expected fleshing out the skeletal role he’s been handed.
Unbroken had been so heavily talked up before release it was considered the one to beat at the Oscars this year, until critics actually got a gander at it (box office on the other hand has been booming). Truth be told, it’s no worse than half the films that the Academy did recognize, and a sight better than some others. The South Pacific cinematography, which did get its hoped for nomination, is attractive and several images stand out, such as the multi-plane arrangement of blindfolded soldiers disembarking the transport, which appears to have been patterned after John Singer Sargent’s famous painting of Gassed WWI soldiers. Unfortunately the film aspires to more than its unseasoned director can reasonably achieve at this stage in the game. Still you have to admire Jolie’s balls for biting off this sizable chunk of the world for only her second outing behind the camera. Following her debut with In the Land of Blood and Honey, another woeful tale of war-torn strife, Unbroken is the actress’ latest entry in her humanitarian campaign to become the self-styled world cinema’s ambassador of good will. With the misguided wealth of noble intentions she heaps upon this inspirational true life tale, she might be applying for an official appointment to the U.N. rather than fulfilling her rightful function as an entertainer.
Hollywood directors are generally criticized for shoveling audiences escapist entertainment with no relevance to real life, but Jolie is working at the opposite end of that spectrum. She takes her job far too seriously, leaving her priorities a bit askew. Settling into her new role she appears to be operating from the unfortunate mindset that responsible directors should use the medium exclusively for the betterment and enrichment of the downtrodden masses. She’s trying to ennoble the art, and Unbroken serves as her second attempt to force moviegoers to eat their vegetables, a slippery slope to start a directorial career on. Great, important subjects rarely translate over into great, important films. Even with half of Unbroken’s story gone, Jolie doesn’t have a firm enough grip on the overly ambitious section that’s left to prevent it from going slack around the edges, and this is the sort of sprawling material that demands a sharp focus for maximum effect. From a directorial standpoint, the film could have benefited from the harsh discipline of a more unrelenting taskmaster. All evidence suggests Jolie had become far too close to the subject of her film and too passionate about doing Zamperini’s story full justice following his death in 2014, to approach the material with anything approaching clearheaded objectivity. Everything in the film flows out of her well-meaning desire not to disturb, disrupt or tarnish his legacy. She’s made the screen equivalent of a memorial here rather than a movie.