Silver Screen: Unbroken
A pair of very different biopics set against the backdrop of World War II nicely illustrates the challenges of storytelling with their contrasting approaches. One is a pathos-and-spectacle-laden movie with the veneer of a blockbuster, and the other is a seemingly uncinematic tale whose conflicts are mostly internal. That the latter film generates suspense from paperwork while the former bores with broad vistas of aerial combat speaks to the discrepancy in their execution.
Unbroken is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s meticulously researched biography of Louis Zamperini. It’s not shorting the gifted Hillenbrand, who also wrote Seabiscuit, to say that the facts of Zamperini’s remarkable life would be astonishing even if you found them crudely etched on a bathroom stall. Zamperini was an unrepentant troublemaker growing up in the 1930s before he found an outlet running track, where he learned the value of struggle. He set records in his age group and earned a spot on the American team in the Olympics in Berlin, where he made an impressive showing in front of Adolf Hitler.
This trip to Germany was an eerie forecast for his future. Zamperini’s plans to go for gold in the next Olympics, ironically scheduled for Tokyo, are dashed when World War II breaks out. Suddenly Louis is off to the Pacific for very different reasons, working as a bombardier. A plane crash leaves him and two fellow soldiers adrift in a lifeboat for weeks on end— another, grimmer record for him to set— before they’re recovered by Japanese soldiers and interned in a prison camp. And then things get really tough.
You should absolutely read Hillenbrand’s intense, moving account of Zamperini’s life. While blazing through the pages it’s almost inevitable to have the thought, “This guy’s life is crazier than any movie I’ve ever seen.” The movie, unfortunately, is too much like so many other movies you’ve seen before.
In the hands of competent but undistinguished director Angelina Jolie, Zamperini’s life feels like three overly familiar, barely related films: a formulaic inspirational sports flick, a survivalist lifeboat tale, and a prison drama. As astonishing as it is that Zamperini had such a variety of intense experiences before the age of thirty, those individual chapters have been covered in dozens of other movies. What makes Zamperini singular is that he lived through all of them, and yet the movie never seems to have a connection with the kid himself.
The young actor Jack O’Connell does a nice job with his portrayal of our hero, nicknamed Zamp by his war buddies, but he’s (pardon the pun) adrift in a sea of scene changes and flashbacks. The elite team of screenwriters, which includes William Nicholson (Gladiator), Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, Beloved), and the Coen brothers (all your favorite movies), can’t find an inroad to the story. Perhaps the biggest mistake made by Jolie and her scribes is the decision to compress Zamperini’s early life and Olympic accomplishments into a couple of sepia-tinted flashbacks. It’s on the track where he develops his fortitude and plucky resilience in the face of certain defeat, where the boy becomes the man Louis Zamperini. Jolie reduces this to a couple of montages and the bumper-sticker philosophy “If you can take it, you can make it.”
The later, more cinematic experiences test Zamperini’s resolve, but the big-screen version of Unbroken doesn’t properly establish who he is in the first place, which renders the further exploits a secondhand tour of horrors. Jolie bangs into every cliché of every genre in which she dabbles— tending to a wounded comrade in the belly of a shot-up plane, starving survivors drooling over a seagull landing on their lifeboat, the myriad indignities of prisoner-of-war life.
At least it all looks pretty, courtesy of ace cinematographer Roger Deakins. Each individual shot is beautifully lit and composed— the glistening dew on the green grass under Zamperini’s cleats, the sapphire blue of an endless ocean, the oily black water of a river as the thankful survivors dash into the water on V.J. Day. But Jolie lacks a singular vision to link these individual images with momentum and dynamism. In the track scenes, everyone appears to trot along at a light jog. When the plane crashes, the claustrophobic intensity inside the cockpit is broken by a quick cut to a bland computerized rendering of a plane smashing into the sea. Zamperini is tormented by the sadistic prison guard Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), but those punches don’t have a meaty impact, and all the suffering plays like a war-movie prerequisite rather than an unimaginable situation turned into a transcendent experience by a man who refuses to be beaten.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.