Friday, December 26, 2014

Unbroken: Louis Zamperini, Sportsman, Survivor, Hero

Despite his death this July, Louis Zamperini will still be honored as the posthumous grand marshal of the upcoming Rose Parade. His honors were often unconventional. Although he did not medal at the 1936 Olympics, he captured the world’s attention with his record-setting final lap of the 5,000-meter. He intended to build on his performance at 1940 Olympics, scheduled to be hosted by Tokyo. Unfortunately, he would come to Japan under radically different circumstances. Angelina Jolie brings Zamperini’s harrowing true story to the big screen with a respect and conviction that make Unbroken (trailer here) one of the more refreshingly old fashioned Christmas releases.

Zamperini was always a bit of an unruly kid, but at least it helped him develop his natural speed. With his brother’s encouragement, Zamperini channeled his raw talent, becoming a local track star and a surprisingly exciting Olympic longshot. Then WWII erupted. The Olympics would be canceled until 1948. Commissioned in the army, Zamperini had a string of good luck as a bombardier, but fortune turns when he is dispatched on a so-called rescue mission in a malfunctioning replacement plane.

For forty-seven grueling days, Zamperini and two comrades were adrift on open waters with no supplies to speak of. Frankly, he and fellow survivor Russell Phillips were not rescued, per se. They were taken into custody by the Imperial Japanese military. Unfortunately, he attracts the attention of Corporal Matsuhiro Watanabe (a.k.a. “The Bird”) in the worst way possible. Recognizing Zamperini’s inner fortitude, Watanabe sets out to break his spirit and his body.

Arguably, Jolie and a battery of screenwriters (including William Nicholson and the Coen Brothers) let the Bird off easy. According to published accounts, he was unrepentantly brutal, well earning his place on MacArthur’s list of forty most wanted war criminals (#23, grimly impressive for a non-commissioned officer). They really could have easily waved the bloody shirt to a greater extent, but instead they chose to focus on Zamperini’s remarkable resiliency. In this respect, the film it quite true to history, depicting the Olympian’s refusal to make propaganda broadcasts in exchange for easier living conditions and many of the resulting punishments Watanabe meted out upon him.

To her credit, Jolie also forthrightly incorporates the role faith played in fortifying Zamperini, but the film never mentions his long post-war association with the Billy Graham Crusade. Regardless, she is not intimidated by a little bit of prayer, a decent serving of American exceptionalism, and a whole lot of guts and testosterone. She is still quite glamorous, but she’s also more man than most studio-establishment filmmakers. Of course, that probably explains why Unbroken has met with mixed reviews so far.

Following up ’71 and Private Peaceful, Jack O’Connell gives a career best performance, concluding his personal war-is-Hell trilogy as the resolute Zamperini. He is just as baby-faced as in prior films, but he conveys a sense Zamperini has grown up in a hurry, as was typically the case for his generation. It is a tough but believably human performance. It is harder to get one’s head around Japanese glam-rocker Miyavi (Takamasa Ishihara) as the sadistic, vaguely effeminate Watanabe, but at least he suggests some sort of psychological dysfunction going on, without excusing or even humanizing the camp guard to any extent.

Strangely, Unbroken features several British actors in supporting (and lead) roles, which seems to be a mistake, if only because it inadvertently invites comparison to films like Bridge on the River Kwai and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Nevertheless, it justly celebrates the courage of Zamperini and his fellow prisoners. Some of the historical set pieces work better than others (the 1932 Olympic sequences feel comparatively small), but it never drags during its one hundred thirty seven minute running time. Recommended for general audiences, Unbroken is now playing nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York.