A true story doesn’t guarantee a great movie, and Unbroken is proof of that. A perfectly
respectable, well-made film, it dutifully depicts Louis Zamperini’s ordeal—from
a crash landing of his plane at sea to 47 agonizing days adrift in a life raft,
followed by seemingly endless abuse as a Japanese prisoner of war. All of this
is vividly and credibly dramatized. Yet the most memorable and inspiring part
of his story is the aftermath of these wartime experiences, which is summed up in
a couple of title-card postscripts.
The movie’s pedigree is impeccable. Zamperini’s life was
chronicled in a best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote Seabiscuit. The script went through many
permutations, but all the credited screenwriters have solid credentials: Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard
LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Horse
Whisperer), and William Nicholson (Shadowlands,
Gladiator). Jack O’Connell is a good actor, fresh enough that he doesn’t
have an established screen persona to contend with, and Angelina Jolie has
proved to be a capable director.
So why didn’t I feel the impact of this story more
directly—in my heart, or in my gut?
Unbroken has the
air of a school assignment. It covers Zamperini’s story from his youthful
misadventures to his redemption when he discovers he has a talent for running.
He winds up on the U.S. track team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and is hoping
to compete again in 1940 but the outbreak of war cancels those games, and the
young man from Southern California serves in the Army Air Corps instead. There
is no synonym for “ordeal” that captures what this man endured, whether lost at
sea with most of his crew buddies dead, or becoming the literal whipping boy
for a sadistic Japanese prison camp warden.
But what do we gain from watching this stoic American being
tortured and punished? We admire his resolve and strength of character because
that’s what is expected of us…but something is missing. Perhaps it’s just too difficult
to digest so much privation and abuse. Or perhaps we are stymied because we
don’t get to see first-hand how Louis Zamperini rebuilt his life after
suffering so greatly.
undoubtedly sincere in its effort to pay Zamperini proper tribute. But one can
glean the essential facts from a synopsis, or even the movie trailer. The film
itself doesn’t provide us with the vicarious experience of witnessing its