Most films fall short of matching the impact of their source material. Life of Pi aside, we have come to expect and endure disappointment.
But Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is other level stuff. It’s a real life biography page turner that places your jaw firmly on the floor.
Louis Zamperini was an American hero the likes of which don’t come around all that often. It’s men like Zamperini (“Zamp” to his brothers in arms) who gave the label “The Greatest Generation” true meaning.
His story, from the delinquent mean streets of Torrance to winning gold at the 1936 Olympics to his service in WWII which resulted in prolonged captivity on multiple remote South Pacific islands at the hands of the Japanese, in particular a tormentor who singled him out for torture, to a troubled re-assimilation in to society that only straightened out once his faith kicked in, leading him to finally being able to forgive his captors….is probably more suited to a mini-series than one feature film.
Nonetheless, international superstar Angelina Jolie tackled the subject and has made a solid film, mostly focusing on Zamperini’a horrific experience under the bamboo cane punishment of camp commander, Corporal Watanabe, aka “The Bird.”
Working from a decent, but not spectacular, script from none other than Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson (check the credits of those four!), Jolie hits enough of the significant emotional notes to honor Hillenbrand’s runaway best seller.
But the order is easily too tall. Even Spielberg would have struggled to pull this one together in under three hours.
I’m sure the producers and Jolie could give you ample reasons for casting unknown British actor Jack O’Connell as the vaunted American hero, but his boyish performance is not all that memorable. Maybe because the real Zamperini was literally larger than life (he passed away in July, 2014), it’s unfair to think any actor could accurately capture the mettle and merit of the man.
Takamasa Ishihara plays “The Bird” with sufficient sadistic menace, but even he seems a boy in what surely was a man’s war.
Well, if the casting choices weren’t necessarily a home run, the decision to use cinematographer Roger Deakins surely was. Deakins, whom the Coen bros use almost exclusively, is almost in a league of his own at this point. His visual composition style is so rich and textured, it is like staring at Rembrandt after Rembrandt as his films unravel. Unbroken is undeniably gorgeous to look at thanks to Deakins and his crew. Bravo.
Also worth mentioning is composer Alexandre Desplat’s emotional score, which reluctantly soars while remaining tethered to a somber sense of tragedy throughout the picture.
However, Zamperini’s story is not a tragic one. It is a story of triumph on so many levels, a mere Hollywood film could never come close to capturing the magnitude of it.
I took my sons to hear Louis Zamperini speak at a local church a few years ago. He spoke simple truths with the humility of a man who did nothing more than persist through adversity. Nothing grandiose. No poetry.
Just a scruffy child of Italian immigrants who developed a backbone of steel and miraculously managed to survive circumstances beyond description.
“If you can take it, you can make it,” Zamp’s brother says to him in the beginning of the film as he begins his training to be a sprinter.
Bumper sticker stuff.
See the movie.
Read the book.
Salute the man.