The very first image of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is a tangerine-tinged sky, still and free of the most miniscule disturbance. The camera slowly pans across, and as we comb the clouds, fighter planes off in the distance slip into the picture without so much as a sound, first one, then another. In one swift slight of hand, we are led from the tranquility of our everyday lives and into a war whose echo is still some 70 years in the hearing. The subtly and quiet power of this introduction evokes the clarity of films like Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, in which Jolie starred and during which she clearly absorbed Eastwood’s unfussy sensibility like a sponge.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”, or at least so said Shakespeare. According to the film, Louis Zamperini spent his life becoming all three. He began as a young immigrant boy who skipped church to drink liquor out of a painted milk bottle and became one of the youngest Olympic-qualifying athletes of his time. In the midst of the stray and nebulousness of childhood, his brother gave him words that would be fed into the whole of his existence: “If you can take it, you can make it.” Boy, did he take it. One of the aforementioned fighter planes carries Zamperini through the skies in the midst of World War II, and although the plane crash lands, it’s a landing that ensures that the Olympian can still run as soon as he arrives back to camp, and in what seems like record time to boot. Unfortunately, celebration is cut short as Louis is thrown into a new mission with a group he’d never previously met. As the audience will learn, it isn’t simply that this mission is doomed to fail; this is the mission that will mercilessly plunge him into a hell as literal and real as anyone should ever have the misfortune of knowing.
This is an extraordinary story detailing the tribulations of an extraordinary character. The film within which it is encased, I’m afraid to say, is less than that, although that isn’t to say it’s entirely without interest. It begins with too many stale lines and pat, ham-handed attempts at profundity to lend the necessary weight to the frankly harrowing proceedings. It’s not shoddy per se, but it’s all a bit too earnestly played. The screenplay is credited to the Coen brothers among others, and given their track record for producing rich, idiosyncratic dialog, one has to wonder how much influence they ultimately had on the script. As we flash back into Louis Zamperini’s youth and his Olympic endeavors, one is filled with the crushing sense that the film is being filtered through a lens lacking in the sharp nuances necessary to see past (or perhaps into) the artifice. We see some of the touchstones of his development, but none of them are given a chance to ring true as they’re tempered by a production a bit too handsome and affectionate for its own good. They resonate like beautifully filmed, respectfully mounted cliff notes of Zamperini’s life instead of moments of genuine insight. As committed as it is, even Jack O’Connell’s performance doesn’t come to life until the second half of the picture.
Thankfully, this sensation proves to have a half-life. The memory of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is too strongly evoked during the film’s scenes of Zamperini and co. adrift at sea, robbing them of the impact they might have had, but as soon as the pilots are stumbled upon by a Japanese ship, everything changes. As soon as we’re brought into the POW camp and exposed to the forests that would serve as Zamperini’s first trial, the movie bursts into a vibrancy it rarely achieves elsewhere, due in substantial part to veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins. In Deakins, Angelina Jolie has found the ideal collaborator. He lends her restrained, polished visuals a tactile physicality that is quintessentially his whilst always remaining in quiet service of Jolie’s vision. One recognizes the stripped-down, storm drain aesthetic of Prisoners in the realization of Japanese imprisonment. These two films mark an evolution in Deakins’s art. In his embrace of the gloss and polish of digital imaging, he has learned to step back, and in doing so, his craftsmanship has, if it’s possible, become even more acutely cinematic.
After several years of confinement and abuse, Zamperini is taken out of the forest and transferred to another camp in Tokyo, where the bulk of the film’s drama takes flight. This is where we’re exposed to the most compelling dynamic of the film, the brutal relationship between Zamperini and Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a guard referred to by the inmates only as “the Bird”. It’s never fully explored how he acquired the monicker, although as is stated by a gentleman named John Fitzgerald, if he ever discovered what they’d truly like to call him, they’d all be killed. Watching Watanabe scrutinize the inmates with his ever-present gaze, I was immediately reminded of the criminally underrated Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Unbroken replaces the homoerotic subtext of that film and sees in the relationship something far more primal even than sex: two stone-walled psychologies locked in a grisly battle for dominance. While doing a bit of research, I discovered that the actor who plays Watanabe is actually a Japanese pop rock musician named Miyavi. The performance he provides is shot through with legitimacy, but part of me couldn’t help but wonder if it was the performance best suited for the film. The character is painted as much more of a villain than perhaps I would have liked. Yes, he is insurmountably cruel to all foreigners in the camp, but I would have appreciated a rendering that saw him as less of a psychopath and more as a man of terrifyingly intense conviction.
There are moments that push that character towards into that exact territory, and those are the moments that struck me most clearly. Zamperini is eventually transferred yet again after a bombing at the previous camp, and in one of the most unbelievably cruel twists of fate I have ever seen on film, Watanabe is revealed to have transferred to the same camp by complete star-crossed chance. This leads to a moment in which Zamperini, with his ankle broken, is demanded by Watanabe to hold an enormous wooden plank high above his head. The Bird warns that if he drops the board, he will be shot and killed on the spot. Louis strains to maintain footing, and for hours, the two stare each other down in what is undoubtedly the movie’s most riveting section. In this stand-off, the film finally transcends itself, revealing levels of distilled humanity in both characters that I found lacking in the rest of the picture. If you’re the kind to get chills, your experience will rest on this moment.
Some weeks ago, I had the unprecedented privilege of meeting Luke, the son of Louis Zamperini, at a reception in Los Angeles. Luke described to me a deeply cutting story about how Angelina Jolie screened an unfinished cut of the film to Zamperini just weeks before his death at the staggering age of 97. According to Luke, his father was breathless all the way through, and according to Jolie, that enthusiastic approval holds more weight to her than any review ever will, as it rightfully should. It’s a shame that his approval wasn’t granted to something that delved the depths of his own soul with a bit more bravery, but the film we have is good enough that Jolie has no cause for concern.