‘Unbroken’ Is Heavy on Torture and Light on Humanity

Angelina Jolie’s new film sensationalizes suffering

Uncategorized December 28, 2014 12

Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book Unbroken details the incredible life of Louis Zamperini. The World War II veteran and Olympic athlete survived 47 days lost...

Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book Unbroken details the incredible life of Louis Zamperini. The World War II veteran and Olympic athlete survived 47 days lost at sea and two years in a Japanese prison camp.

After the war, he struggled with alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. He turned to God for help then embarked on an incredible journey through Japan, forgiving the men who tortured him.

Director Angelina Jolie’s adaptation focuses on the suffering and drops the redemption. The resulting movie is tedious.

Beautiful men suffer on camera—and that’s about it.

Spoilers ahead.

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The movie opens strong, showing the audience a routine bombing run in the Pacific. Zamperini and his fellow soldiers dodge anti-aircraft fire and fight off Japanese Zeros. Bullets rip through men and metal. Zamperini tends to both.

From here, Jolie takes us back in time to Zamperini’s childhood. She spends a few scenes showing a drinking, smoking and hard-fighting elementary school kid. He swigs liquor from a milk bottle, takes beatings from racist classmates and leers at women.

His brother notices and helps Zamperini turn his life around. Soon, he’s a young man running track. Moments later, he’s on his way to the Olympics.

The back story completed, Jolie returns us to the Pacific and the story she really wants to tell—that of Zamperini’s imprisonment and suffering.

At top — American bombers in Unbroken. Above — Watanabe staring down Zamperini. Universal Pictures captures

But the trick to narrative history—especially biography—is finding a broader theme. It’s not enough to recite history. The filmmaker must also show how the subject’s life reflects broader human experiences.

Walk the Line is a love story. Amadeus is about jealousy and mediocrity in the face of genius. The King’s Speech details one man’s embarrassing personal struggle.

True, we would probably not watch these movies were they not about Johnny Cash, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and King George VI. But we would not remember them if they did not touch on universal themes.

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The men in Jolie’s Unbroken aren’t humans. They’re gods. Jack O’Connell plays Zamperini. He’s handsome and rugged. The month at sea and the time in the prison camp wreak havoc on his weight, but his hair and smile remain frozen in time.

His fingernails and teeth are always clean. His hair never grows or falls out of place. He and his fellow sufferers grow beards and get dirty, true, but their immaculate smiles and styled hair destroy the effect.

The Japanese pop-star Miyavi plays Watanabe—Zamperini’s main tormentor. Watanabe is … fey. A strange sexual tension runs between the two men. One that felt out of place.

A close up of Watanabe reveals manicured fingernails filed down to feminine points. He’s obsessed with Zamperini, singling him out for shame and abuse. At one point, he wakes up the hero by whipping him with a belt. Watanabe presses a napkin to Zamperini’s bleeding ear.

“Why do you make me hit you?” he whispers. It’s campy and surreal.

The days lost at sea and the years spent in the prison camp are the focus of Jolie’s film. To be fair, Hillenbrand’s book also spent most of its time on these scenes. Both artists went to great lengths to depict Zamperini’s suffering.

But Hillenbrand made that suffering mean something. When Zamperini comes home, he can’t hold a job. He drinks to ease the memories of his trauma. He and the other soldiers come home from the war only to struggle with PTSD in a world that barely understands the concept.

In Hillenbrand’s narrative, Zamperini marries. His wife introduces him to Billy Graham. The charismatic preacher convinces the veteran to talk about his troubles publicly and—more importantly—seek out the men who abused him, and forgive them. Zamperini does so.

He goes back to Japan and finds his captors. He forgives them all. Only Watanabe wouldn’t talk to him.

Zamperini’s triumph in the face of torture. Universal Pictures capture

The last few chapters of Hillenbrand’s book focus on this part of Zamperini’s life. These moments give context to the suffering. They speak to the deep well of compassion in a troubled man.

Jolie’s filmed version of Unbroken loses all that. The movie climaxes with Zamperini defying Watanabe and inspiring his fellow captives. Then the war ends and he goes home. Jolie relegates his struggle to readjust to civilian life to a title card.

Just a few words on a black screen.

That’s a shame. Zamperini’s life was fascinating. People will remember it and Hillenbrand’s book. They will forget the movie. Not just because it misses the point, but also because it commits the gravest of cinema sins.

Unbroken is boring.