Unbroken hits theaters as a much anticipated adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s non-fiction book of the same name, which tells the story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic athlete whose bomber crashed in World War II, survived 47 days on the open sea, and then endured roughly two and a half years of torture in Japanese prison camps. With a true story of incredible resilience that borders on the unbelievable, Unbroken was ripe for a Hollywood adaptation, and with Angelina Jolie at the helm, a remarkable cast, renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins, and even the Coen brothers on board, the film seemed poised for greatness. It truly is a shame then that despite all its technical skill, Unbroken’s script fails at conveying the power of Zamperini’s incredible story.
In spite of this failure, however, Unbroken remains a competent portrayal of the basic events of Zamperini’s pre-war and wartime experience. Deakins’ cinematography is often lush and beautiful. The opening shot of a flight of B-24s illuminated in the sunrise, for example, is an exquisitely artistic image. Under Jolie’s direction, the sequence of survival on-board the rafts is easily the highlight of the film, capturing the struggle of desperate men not only against nature, but against themselves: fighting for their very sanity. It is this sequence that allows Jack O’Connell (who plays Zamperini), Domnhall Gleeson (Russell Allen-Phillips) and Finn Wittrock (“Mac” McNamara) to show off their acting chops, convincingly revealing both the physical and mental perils that their real life subjects faced.
It is a shame, then, that once the survivors of the bomber crash are “rescued” by the Japanese the story becomes a one-note affair. By no means is this to fault the excellent acting by Miyavi as “The Bird”, a brutal Japanese prison commander, and Garrett Hedlund as the American officer John Fitzgerald (it was a particular pleasure to see Hedlund, whose performance in Tron: Legacy I have always enjoyed, get to try his hand at a more serious role). These remarkable performances are wasted on a script that shuns character development to simply focus on the physical brutality of the Japanese captors. Of course, this cruelty should be the focus of this segment of the film, but no insight is given into the mind of Zamperini during this time, and little is done to establish Fitzgerald and the other prisoners as living, breathing people. Thus, the film descends into a cycle of violence which, while historically accurate, fails to provide the narrative structure to help drive home emotional impact. The cumulative effect is numbing, rather than poignant.
This is all the more exacerbated by the film’s mildly controversial ending. Zamperini is freed from the prison camp, and he arrives home to greet his family on the tarmac. At last, I thought, here we would have the emotional catharsis to help make sense of the pounding agony of the last hour and a half. Instead, the film fades to black, with several cue cards briefly summarizing how Zamperini struggled with post-traumatic-stress-disorder before dedicating his life to God, even going so far as to extend forgiveness to his captors and return to Japan to run the Olympic torch. Now, I understand that Zamperini himself desired to end the film where it did, but it remains an artistically dubious decision. Certainly some of the prison sequences could have been cut so that this moving epilogue could have been brought to light. This struggle with PTSD would have lent more authenticity to Zamperini’s character, and through the forgiveness the audience could have sought resolution to the relentless punishment inflicted on its hero. Instead, the ending leaves one unsatisfied, frustrated at a failure to finish the story.
Jolie, as director, had two options open to her in order to make Unbroken a truly magnificent work of cinema, and a film worthy of its true life story. First, she could have kept the ending as is, but invested time into developing Zamperini and his fellow prisoners as individuals, providing clear character arcs through which the audience could understand how these men remained unbroken in the midst of unbelievable horror (a continued, focused development of the running motif comes to mind as a possibility). Secondly, she could have cut some of the brutal sequences and devoted time to a falling action that dealt with Zamperini’s psychological scarring and eventual reconciliation (the filmmakers clearly were privy to the significance of this forgiveness, foreshadowing it with an early depiction of Mass). Instead, Unbroken becomes a one-dimensional depiction of simple perseverance. Commendable, to be sure, but one can’t shake the feeling that Jolie’s film is 2/3rds of a phenomenal picture.