Movies set during famous wars often struggle to genuinely do justice to the events they portray. “Unbroken,” which is based on the non-fiction book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” unfortunately suffers a similar fate, failing to meet the high standards that this best-selling novel sets.
“Unbroken” chronicles the true story of the U.S. Olympic athlete and World War II soldier Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell). Zamperini rose to fame as a high school track runner and competed in the 1936 Olympics before enlisting in the U.S. Air Forces in 1941. He was an outstanding athlete and exemplar lieutenant, but that was just the beginning. Zamperini survived over a month stranded at sea in a life raft as well as prolonged internment as a prisoner of war under the Japanese. His journey is as amazing as it is long and gruesome.
With a story of such a remarkable nature, Angelia Jolie, who is making her directorial debut, had enough material to craft a moving film. Yet, she missed the mark. Rather than pulling together all of the elements of the story that humanized Zamperini, Jolie blankets the movie in a layer of overdone patriotism that ultimately made a character of such astonishing depths appear rather shallow on screen.
Zamperini’s troublemaking childhood as the son of recent immigrants, his newfound passion for track, his astounding athletic career and all of the experiences that he accumulated during the war: these were the perfect ingredients for a poignant voyage of suffering and self-discovery. However, Jolie skews these events in a predictable way that marvels at Zamperini’s achievements without ever truly exploring his flaws, causing the character’s development to be completely superficial.
In every race, Zamperini always drifts towards the back of the pack, but of course he would somehow catch a second wind and consistently beat out all of his competitors. While in the book he does indeed have a winning streak, his continual long shot wins are overemphasized to add dramatic effect in the movie. Because these races are so common, they are far less powerful and ultimately detract from the film.
In each scene Zamperini is tested, but it is a matter of time before his enemies concede and he succeeds. This persevering spirit is central to the film, and so Jolie bypasses the complex emotional core that underlies this steadfast strength. The back story is not fleshed out enough to seem like it belongs distinctly to Zamperini, and the events portrayed on screen omit the chronic trauma that he faced after the war. Jack O’Connell is always portraying the pretty boy underdog that rises against all odds, leaving little to add to his character’s personality.
The film’s unsurprising nationalism is seen through the harsh, almost comical, depiction of the Japanese. Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, played by Miyavi, is the only active role the Japanese enemy has in the movie, and it is far from an attractive one. Miyavi is the cruel and ambitious general in the prisoner of war camp. His calculated movements, clean and precise attire, and young mocking voice all add to this fascinating character.
Because Jolie is working with Zamperini’s version of the events, perhaps it was inevitable that she would slant the dynamics of the situation. In the scene where Miyavi’s strong facade succumbs to Zamperini’s unbreakable will (as we knew it would), he suddenly drops all pretensions and acts like a child throwing a tantrum. Later, when Zamperini looks at a picture of a young Miyavi standing alongside an even stricter-looking military father, Jolie has the opportunity to develop the enemy’s history, but instead she glosses over it for an instant. Thus, the negative image of the Japanese commander prevails.
Beyond these undeniable flaws, the film does have redeeming qualities. Firstly, the detailed props made the film a unique work of art. From the intricate airplane equipment and its accompanying sound effects to the coal-covered black bodies of the prisoners of war, each scene was historically accurate and absorbed the time’s idiosyncrasies. These minor details put an almost nostalgic twist on this turbulent setting.
To add to this aesthetic appeal is the second noteworthy component – Jolie’s unique camerawork. Her most interesting technique was filming the scene directly above the action so that everything below was experienced from an original angle. The most memorable use of this technique was the scene where a large group of coal-coated prisoners are standing in a river. This angle artfully juxtaposes the splashing soldiers and the still figure of Zamperini keeping his gaze towards the sky.
While it’s a motivational film that puts the gravity of World War II in perspective, “Unbroken” falls prey to the typical clichés of its genre. It avoids historical complexities and ignores complex issues like Zamperini’s battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While its uplifting spirit may be appropriate for the holidays, it is only a mediocre adaption of the critically acclaimed heroic war tale.