As a boy, Louis Zamperini found himself literally running from the law: a troublemaker who got into fights, stole, and drank liquor from bottles he colored to disguise, he discovered a gift for speed that allowed him to (temporarily, at least) get out of difficult situations.
This speed was put to use years later, when Zamperini became an accomplished long-distance runner under the tutelage of his brother. At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, he set a record for his time in the final lap of the 5000 meter race.
Before he could compete again, however – he was set to run in Tokyo in 1940 before the Olympics were cancelled due to war – Zamperini was drafted into service. He served as a bombardier during WWII, and during a search and rescue mission his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean. He spent 47 days on a raft adrift in the ocean.
But that wasn’t nearly the end of Zamperini’s ordeal. After being “rescued” by the Japanese Navy, Zamperini spent the next two years of his life in a POW camp, where he and other prisoners were tortured by a sadistic prison guard until the end of the war.
The story of Louis Zamperini is a great one. Not surprisingly, Universal bought the film rights to his life story back in 1957, planning to develop it as a vehicle for Tony Curtis. More than five decades later, the same studio bought the rights to Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography, and renewed interest in bringing this story to the big screen was born.
The resulting film is Unbroken, a gorgeously-photographed (by Roger Deakins), vividly-realized, authentic-feeling adaptation that nevertheless struggles to come to life in dramatic terms. Director Angelina Jolie credibly brings this story to life, but the film is so single-minded in its depiction of Zamperini’s grueling trials that it becomes a struggle to sit through.
Many films of this type – which include The Bridge on the River Kwai, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Rescue Dawn, and The Hill, which Jolie and Deakins have cited as a major influence on Unbroken – tend to tell a story: character arcs, subplots, and typically a narrative that focuses on a breakout attempt. Prisoners of war suffer greatly, yes, but the audience doesn’t need to suffer with them.
But after a strong first half that recounts Zamperini’s early years up to the Berlin Olympics and his service in the Pacific Islands, Unbroken focuses so heavily on his torture at the hands of the sadistic guard that the film becomes about the torture itself. The closest comparison I can make is to The Passion of the Christ.
Jack O’Connell, the breakout star of 2014 after his roles here and in ’71 and Starred Up, is impressive as Zamperini, who goes through an almost never-ending series of ordeals. Despite the lack of much character work or a conventional narrative, it’s his strong presence that carries the film and delivers a number of memorable scenes, including the film’s emotional highlight, when Zamperini holds a wooden beam over his head to stand up to his torturer.
That torturer, by the way, was a pretty nasty character: Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known as “The Bird” by his prisoners, made General MacArthur’s list of most wanted Japanese war criminals, though he was never prosecuted after the war. He admitted getting a sexual thrill from beating prisoners, and told 60 Minutes in 1998 that he wasn’t following military orders in doing so, but instead his own personal feelings.
Japanese pop star Takamasa Ishihara feels miscast as Watanabe; it’s a casting decision that recalls Ryûichi Sakamoto in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but Ishihara lacks the gravitas to make this character as scary as he ought to be.
There is, perhaps, another movie to be told about Zamperini – he later found Christ and forgave his Watanabe and his imprisoners, and returned to Japan in 1998 to carry the Olympic Torch, as notes at the end inform us.
But that’s not what Jolie’s film is trying to achieve: Unbroken, adapted by Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson from Hillenbrand’s book, and then rewritten by the Coen Brothers for Jolie, is singular in its purpose of depicting Zamperini’s torturous struggle. For what it is, I cannot really fault Unbroken, only note that it isn’t an easy sit.