Unbroken is Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand’s second non-fiction bestseller to be adapted into a feature film, and director Angelina Jolie and Co. treat their protagonist like yet another inspirational horse. The hero of Unbroken, Olympic running, lifeboat surviving POW Louis Zamperini, squeezed at least seven lifetimes’ worth of action and adventure into his one, a sort of real-life most interesting man in the world. And yet, the way the movie paints him, none of his dialog adds up to much more than coltish feet stamping and a raring for oats. You get a sense of what the man went through, but not much sense of the actual man. He sure had moxie though!
On some level, you have to commiserate with Angelina Jolie and her four credited screenwriters (the most recent of whom include the Coen Brothers). The idea for a film about Zamperini’s story has been around in some form since 1956, and you have to imagine part of the reason it took so long is that Zamperini’s story feels like too much for even three or four movies, let alone one. There’s the delinquent who became a star runner. The Olympic underdog who impressed Hitler. The Olympic favorite who had his prime years stolen by World War II. The planewrecked bombardier who battled sharks, storms, strafing, and hunger to survive more days at sea than anyone in history. And that’s barely the first act.
It’s an insane story, but the movie version doesn’t bring much to the table other than pretty cinematography. The script seems to think trauma is drama, that stories are more about things happening than the people they happen to. Who was Louis Zamperini, other than a guy who got beat up a lot?
We open with Louis Zamperini during his delinquent childhood, his delinquency communicated through royalty-free stock photo props – cigarettes behind the barn, a stern policeman shaking a baton, an immigrant mother brandishing a rolling pin and praying to the Virgin Mary. “Miss a-Mary, what-a my guana do with-a my son? He eat em up alla di cannoli for-a the bake-a sale!”
One day, 10 or 11-year-old Louis is just minding his own business, having himself a nice cigarette when some street toughs start taunting him. “Hey, does anyone else smell garlic? Get out of our town, wop, and take your dago family with you!”
No one likes a redundant racist, and a fight breaks out. They knock him down, but he gets back up again (you know you never gonna keep him down…). The scene sets the tone for the movie, in that it delivers the information – delinquent, tough, Italian, MOXIE – as succinctly as possible, but also without any personal touch. Louis gets back up when you hit him, but without so much as a sneer or a quip. He’s dignified to the point that he’s not really a person.
Soon, Louis’s track coach and his brother discover Louis’s speed in a scene that’s almost a shot-for-shot remake of Forrest Gump running across the football field in Forrest Gump (Angelina Jolie is supposedly good friends with Forrest Gump writer Eric Roth, so maybe it was an intentional homage). Louis’s brother starts training him to be a track star, and does so using only the hoariest of sports movie clichés – riding alongside Louis on his bike, dispensing kitten poster worthy bon mots such as “If you can take it, you can make it,” and “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” These platitudes will come to give Louis pluck during his darkest hours, moxie him up when he’s feeling down.
Unbroken is a great story, beautifully shot, poorly told. It manages to leave out everything that would’ve humanized Louis (*** for book spoilers), yet studiously leaves in every part where he gets beaten up, and even throws in a few extra for good measure. Grandpap may tell you beatings build character, they’re not a substitute for character.
Also, for a movie directed by an actress, a lot of the acting is pretty terrible. Louis and his bomber’s captain, Phil, are stuck on a lifeboat with a crewman played by Finn Witrock, who seems like a male model out of his depth here. The story focuses so much on Louis’s relationship to his chief tormentor, the Bird, played by Takamasa Isihara, that I could see it carrying the movie if they’d cast someone who was better at playing the charismatic sadist, a force of nature in the vein of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. Baby-faced Isihara never rises above TBS movie-of-the-week level villainry. Jack O’Connell is passable as Zamperini, in that he’s decent at grimacing, but it seems to me someone could’ve at least taught him how to pronounce “gnocchi” (knee-yokey? come on, man.).
Not surprisingly, the most effective part of the movie is the final scene, featuring footage of the real Zamperini, 80 years old and carrying the torch at the Nagano Olympics through crowds of cheering Japanese. The scene has a natural emotional weight that no amount of sappy music or folksy chestnuts could f*ck up. Almost every single based-on-a-true-story biopic or Oscar movie, from Argo to The Fighter, ends this way, with photographs or stock footage of the real subjects of the film. More than 10 years after American Splendor it blows my mind that no one else has tried to incorporate any of this historical footage into the narrative. Mix it up! Half of these movies make me feel like I’m just biding my time until the epilogue text. With Unbroken, the entire movie kind of feels like epilogue text, more like Angelina Jolie’s book report on Unbroken than a movie. I tend to assume that the more hands a project passes through, the broader and more generalized it gets. With Unbroken, it feels like we’ve been left with only the most obvious, middle-of-the-road outline of the Louis Zamperini story, where all the scenes involve someone trying to break him and him remaining unbroken (because of the moxie, you see). Christ, have some fun, this movie is about plane crashes and sharks and Hitler, for God’s sake.
I’d like to think Louis Zamperini was a real guy with a real personality, not just a guy who was put through a series of ordeals who grimaced a lot and eventually came through, with the help of his God, his human hang-in-there-baby poster brother, and an unbreakable will. In fact, this movie easily could’ve been called Triumph of the Will, though I wouldn’t recommend it.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
***The movie glosses over everything that happened on the ship to the 1936 Olympics, where Louis gained 10 pounds gorging on free steaks, having grown up learning to scrounge and scavenge every morsel. After his race he met Hitler, and at one point was nearly shot by Storm Troopers for trying to steal a Nazi flag as a souvenir. These plot points are omitted. Seems like they would’ve been important in building a character, and that maybe they could’ve swapped them for a few of the beatings.