Unbroken (2014). Australia, 137 minutes. Directed by Angelina Jolie. Starring: Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, and Domhnall Gleeson.
Angelina Jolie expands her directorial skills with Unbroken, which opened Christmas Eve nationwide. In her second feature following In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011), the director assembled a stellar crew to come on board the production. The all-male crew has hardly created the environment for a feminist classic, and Jolie as helmer has yet to reveal a definitive directorial style, but it is clear that she chose to follow the film industry model with an established crew in key positions. The craftsmanship of the film is excellent, but in many ways this eclipses the authorial voice of Jolie as director. To start with there is a lot of the Coen Brothers in the production. Both established filmmakers, as well as screenwriters, Ethan and Joel Coen wrote the script. Richard Deakins served as cinematographer, as he did on Skyfall (2012) and a handful of Coen Bros’ features, notably No Country for Old Men (2007). Art director Charlie Revai, who previously worked on the miniseries The Pacific about U.S. Marines fighting the Japanese, brings a necessary background to the film. Another capable member of the crew is French composer Alexandre Desplat, who scored two war films: Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the Oscar winning chronicle of the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and Argo (2012), a film about a rescue mission of Americans in Iran.
Unbroken is adapted from the best-selling novel by Laura Hillenbrand, the New York Times best nonfiction novel of 2014. The slick production is relatively wrinkle-free, and it is hard to argue against an almost all-American boy war story. However, this is the main problem in a nearly seamless creation upholding Hollywood industry standards. Unlike independent films made by women, a major Hollywood production like Unbroken often conceals evidence of personal style, and there is none that can be gleaned from this production.
Angelina Jolie brings to film the story of the World War II veteran and Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, played by the half-Irish and half-English actor Jack O’Connell. His dyed black hair to make him look Italian is as conspicuous as the light complexion and fair features of his older brother Pete (Alex Russell), who does not seem to resemble anyone in his family. Louis grows up in Torrance, California, the son of Italian immigrants, who like himself initially do not speak English. He does not believe he will amount to any good and is constantly in fights in and out of school. His speed, while being chased, comes to the attention of his brother and later his school athletic team. With his talent he goes straight to the top as a member of the U.S. Olympic team in the 1936 Olympics held in Hitler’s Germany.
The transition from boy to young man is told cinematographically in a typical montage, where the young running boy morphs into the mature Louis bound for the Olympics. The opening ceremony of the Olympics in Germany foreshadows his future in World War II fighting the Japanese when he nods to a young Japanese athlete who comes from the land that will later become his enemy in combat. In reality, Zamperini shook hands with Hitler, who noticed his phenomenal speed in the tail end of the 5000-meter run. Jesse Owens was also on the team and said that Hitler waved at him from the stadium.
Louis later retires from sports and enrolls in the U.S. Air Force. There are few survivors when the warplane carrying Louis Zamperini and his fellow soldiers loses its engines in the Pacific and crashes. They spend 47 days on a raft fighting sharks; dodging bullets from a Japanese warplane; and battling thirst, hunger, and fatigue until a Japanese warship at last rescues them. This part of the film evokes Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012), though in contrast, there are no magical thrills in Unbroken to divert our attention from young men sequestered on rubber rafts, finding food, catching rainwater, and staying alert while Louis tells them precisely how his mother makes an Italian dish.
After their capture, Zamperini is taken to an abusive Japanese POW camp. The camp commander tries to break him and singles him out because of his strong spirit. One of the standout performances of the film is the role of the internment commander called “The Bird,” played by Takamasa Ishihara. The Bird and Louis represent the strength of Japan and the U.S. during wartime, contrasting the countries’ strength during peacetime at the Olympics. The Bird is shown as intentionally cruel and Zamperini as passionately heroic. The image of Louis holding up a wooden beam to defy The Bird’s demands for a display of vulnerability is a notable Biblical allusion. In his postwar years, Zamperini became a born again Evangelical Christian, so the symbolism is unmistakably prophetic.
The problem with film adaptations of novels and of historic figures is that they often become the captives of chronology. This story spans from Louis the young boy to documentary footage of his return to the Japanese Winter Olympics in Nagano as an octogenarian. Jolie directs her attention to the life raft scenes at sea and POW camp life. These episodes are rich in detail and visually relate the harsh endurance of the young soldiers. However, Unbroken employs a somber set up of scenes (such as crane shots of prisoners or underwater photography of the plane crash in the Pacific), which, despite being artistically crafted, are slow to engage.
Jolie might have chosen to focus on other aspects of Louis Zamperini’s story, such as his post traumatic stress disorder, a subject that is becoming more and more relevant today with returning soldiers from the Middle East. Also of interest was Zamperini’s 1950 return to Japan to speak with war criminals he had encountered in his days as a POW.
A major actor or actress is well-qualified to be a director, having spent so much time on the set observing innumerable production decisions. Jolie has learned this craft well, and her future films will hopefully become more nuanced and display a wider range of skills emanating from her own direction.
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