Review of Unbroken, Directed by Angelina Jolie
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” — Mark Twain
Angelina Jolie, who directed World War II-flick Unbroken, and the Coen brothers, who wrote the script, had a lot to live up to. The book on which it was based is breathtaking. Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction narrative was a tantalizing read, full of high-speed action, glorious detail, comic romps and historical context — all of it the true story of the life of Louie Zamperini, Olympic runner and war hero.
And the life of Louie himself — the life Hillenbrand told so well — is incredible. Louie went from troublemaking kid, running from the cops, to a runner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he actually met Hitler. Later he embarked on the life of a bombardier aboard rickety U.S. planes in the Pacific, racking up several narrow escapes from Japanese bullets. After his luck ran out and his plane went down over the ocean, Louie survived for 47 days on a life raft, with nothing to eat but the birds and fish he and two other men could manage to catch. At one point on this wretched voyage, a Japanese plane spotted the raft and flew low to strafe the craft with bullets, making several passes. To escape the gunfire, Louie jumped into the shark-infested waters, where he had to punch a shark in the nose — more than once. He survived the sea only to be captured by the Japanese and taken to a POW camp, where he was starved and beaten by a psychotic guard who had a particular fascination with him. All this time, his family worried he was dead.
Having torn through the book earlier this year, I had to sympathize with Deadspin writer Drew Magary when he wrote concerning the then-upcoming move: “There is an Unbroken movie coming this winter. If it isn’t two hours of underwater shark-punching, I will be upset.”
Somewhere in the world, Drew Magary is very upset. Because there was no underwater shark-punching in Jolie’s version of what is, I remind you readers, a true story. In several places throughout the movie, it seemed as if Jolie and the Coen brothers were worried that Louie’s story was too much, that audiences wouldn’t believe it, that viewers wouldn’t be able to stomach the lurches from absurd possibilities to heart-wrenching suffering. Missed opportunities included the shark-punching, Hitler, the POWs’ plan to assassinate the psychotic guard, the extent of Louie’s starvation, and more. Jolie also for the most part skips the story of Louie’s family during the war, as they waited with no news of him, wondering if he was dead; that particular storyline led many readers of the book to tears.
It’s as if Jolie attempted to make a story more subtle than the true one. To some extent, I can understand that choice. It’s much easier to create a movie that has one emotional strand, that is more predictable and steady. But doing so precludes making a great movie, a movie that can encompass all the heart-rending tragedy and comedy that is real life.
The film does have some redeeming qualities. The opening scenes are fantastic, giving viewers a very clear sense of what it was like to be on a bomber riddled with bullet holes and no brakes to count on for landing. Jack O’Connell, who plays Louie, gives a worthy performance. Japanese rock singer Miyavi is downright creepy as the sadistic guard known as “The Bird,” even if he’s not quite old enough or pudgy enough to resemble the actual man.
And for Christians, the movie shows much promise at the start: A priest gives a sermon on loving your enemies, and Louie discusses prayer with a fellow airman. The film doesn’t even skimp on the scene in which Louie offers up his own prayer: “Lord, if you get me out of this, I’ll dedicate my life to you.”
But the movie cuts out the most important religious moment in Louie’s life, and that is where the film’s attempt at subtlety forces it to miss the point altogether. (Warning: massive book spoiler ahead.) After the war, Louie is ravaged by nightmares in which he relives his POW trauma and becomes obsessed with revenge. He wakes up one night with his hands around his wife’s neck. He descends into alcoholism, and his marriage unravels. But then he follows his wife to a Billy Graham rally, hears a sermon, and soon after, everything changes. Louie is saved from his nightmares, saved from himself, saved from his sin. He follows up on his promise to dedicate his life to God, fixes his marriage, and later returns to Japan to meet with some of his captors and forgive them. He lives to age 97, supporting himself and his family through Christian ministry.
But the film never shows any of this. It comes to an abrupt stop when Louie returns to American soil. The film’s climax comes when Louie, as a weak and beaten POW, holds a heavy beam aloft for an unusually long period of time. The film’s message is clear: This amazing man endured so much and was so strong. That is certainly true — human resilience is awesome to behold. But that strength is so often very fragile, and in Louie’s case, as in so many others, it comes crashing down. The most fascinating part of Louie’s tale — how a strong man becomes broken, and is made unbroken by Jesus, never gets told.