“Unbroken” is two and a half movies in one. It is the story of a World War II bombardier and the extremely long time he was stranded at sea when his plane went down, and it is also the story of the same guy doing through some hellish times in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. And also it is kind of about how he was an Olympic runner, but that’s really just there for some flavor, and to show how hard this guy worked.
“This guy” being Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), a trouble making kid turned All-American high school athlete turned US Olympian turned second lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps, and this fella has a helluva story, one good enough to turn into a movie as they say, which is why some version of this story has been attempted by Hollywood since the 1950s, and here we are now in 2014 with “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie.
And Jolie directed this movie with the grace and reverence she felt the story deserved, as the film is pretty self serious, with only a little bit of humor throughout, as they instead focused on the intense hardship that Zamperini had to overcome, and sure why not, this is why we are here, right? This wasn’t a walk in the park for Zamperini. The long middle section of the movie in which he is stranded at sea on a life raft with two other guys could have easily been an entire movie all on its own. They had to go through some crazy stuff during that very long period in which they were pretty much dying little by little every day, including surviving huge storms and fending off hungry sharks, and if that was the whole story, it would have been a hell of a story already.
But then he gets picked up by a Japanese warship and he becomes a prisoner of war and then starts this whole intense “Midnight Express” section of the movie in which he is just beaten over and over and in different ways by a sadistic and domineering Japanese officer nick named The Bird. The time at the main camp is a harrowing experience, and throw on top of that a dirty jungle camp before that and a horrible coal mine after that and you have pretty much the three lowest ranked places to stay in Japan as per Yelp reviews.
All of this is shot and presented with some muted, desaturated gray tones, mirroring the almost relentless misery and horror experienced by Zamperini and the rest of the men in the camp. The few times we get some color is when we get the flashbacks to Zamperini running in the Berlin Olympic games, and even then we cut to his family sitting in the dark, reverently listening to the radio throughout the race. Otherwise it is doom and gloom, with dramatic shots held like living paintings, put up as homages to all POWs of World War II, if not just all wars in general. The depravity of man and the strength of the human spirit, you know, that kinda bullshit. “Unbroken” is dripping with these sentiments though it’s not like it is not earned, as it truly is an incredible and fascinating story.
And for the most part it is well told. This kind of reminds me of some of Clint Eastwood’s more recent films, what with the stillness and patience to allow scenes to unfold slowly. I feel like Mr. Eastwood could have directed this, and vice versa probably Mrs. Jolie could have done something better with “J. Edgar” or “Hereafter” than Eastwood did with those projects. She, like many smart artists, surrounded herself with other smart artists like cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Alexandre Desplat. Hell, even the Coen Brothers gave the screenplay enough of a script doctoring that they ended up with some of the writing credits (though if you could point to specific things in this movie that are of the Coens doing, I could call you a mistaken fool and possibly a liar). So with all of this talent and good actors, how could this movie not be well made in many ways?
So why does it not really feel like a great movie? It IS a good story, pretty epic thanks to the stranded at sea thing on top of the prisoner of war bit, and a lot of very talented people came together to make this, so why did I walk out of the theater feeling like this movie was just good but not great? Kind of hard to put my finger on it at the moment actually. Hence this current stream of consciousness paragraph as I try to figure out how to end this thing.
Maybe it didn’t help that I knew this Zamperini fella was going to make it to the end and not die because it is a true story and it is based on a book about the guy. Hellm, when was the last time Hollywood made a movie about a POW that does NOT make it home in the end? Never. The answer is never. So don’t be naïve. But something like this doesn’t stop people from loving movies like “Titanic” and “Lincoln,” despite everyone knowing going into these movies how they were going to end because HISTORY CLASS.
So what could it be? Was it too reverent? Was Angelina Jolie et. al. trying to hard to convey to me that this movie is important and this is a story that must be heard? Maybe a slightly less “arty,” and by that I mean a more stripped down and straightforward version of this story may have worked better. Sure I like the really dramatic wide shots of POW workers in silhouette against the sun set filled sky and I appreciated some of the more stylish choices made here and there. But maybe we should have seen something more linear, just a simple telling of what is a grand story that doesn’t need any gussying up at all. Think of a Werner Herzog documentary. Or even Stanley Kubrick. Just set up the camera, leave ALL of the narrative and visual gimmicks at home and just tell the story. That might have been more effective.
Anyway, “Unbroken” is good and I am sure the Zamperini family is very appreciative of this story being told and in this way, so there you go. It’s the feel good prisoner of war, stranded at sea, sometimes an Olympics things movie of the year.