“The unbelievable true story.”
That’s the tagline for Angelina Jolie’s new film, Unbroken. It’s not wrong – the film, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name, stays remarkably true to the life of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Italian-American Olympian whose plane went down over the Pacific during World War II. After being stranded at sea in a life raft for 47 days, Zamperini was captured by the Japanese and interned in a POW camp until the end of the war. And it is really unbelievable – Zamperini survived not one but two plane crashes, sharks, ocean storms, starvation, and torture.
But just because it’s a true story doesn’t make it a good story.
Before I go on, let’s get one thing straight. I think the real Louis Zamperini was truly remarkable; he was a paragon of mental fortitude, determination, and kindness. In his lifetime, Zamperini was almost without fault. And I think that’s why this movie doesn’t work.
Audiences no longer watch two-dimensional stories. The line between Good Guys and Bad Guys has been blurred almost beyond recognition (you can thank shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad for that). So when you’re presented with the unbelievable true story of Louis Zamperini, a textbook Good Guy, seemingly without any fault or weakness, it feels… well… unbelievable.
Ultimately, the point of every scene in Unbroken is: “Isn’t it crazy all this stuff really happened to this guy?!” It makes for a compelling book, but a disappointing movie.
There are bright spots. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is breathtaking, per usual (you’ve seen his work in movies like Skyfall and No Country For Old Men). And the cast overflows with talent, from O’Connell (whose performances in this year’s Starred Up and the upcoming ’71 should be required viewing in acting schools) to Finn Wittrock as Zamperini’s beleaguered colleague Sgt. McNamara, to Domnhall Gleeson as Phil, Zamperini’s closest friend who suffered along with him. It’s hard not to be impressed by these actors, at least a little bit.
But when they’re forced to say lines like “If I can take it, I can make it,” then it’s unbelievable, even if it’s true (which it is).
Maybe the most disappointing thing of all is that Angelina Jolie, someone who spent so much of her life trying to convince the world she was weird and unique, gave us a movie that suffers from being too bland. It’s strange that the woman who was famous for wearing a vial of blood around her neck also made this movie that feels like a two-and-a-half hour motivational poster.
It’s also regrettable that someone who has done such impressive international work made a movie that feels at times like pro-American propaganda. Obviously, since Zamperini was interned in a Japanese POW camp, his experiences with Japan were horrendous. But when you see these moments on screen, his captors seem more like bad-guy caricatures than credible antagonists, and it rang just anti-Japanese enough to take me out of it. Sure, it’s true, but I’m not sure what that truthfulness is serving.
One of the hardest parts of filmmaking is learning to kill your darlings. You do eventually have to ask what unbelievable true things you need to cut to make a more compelling story. Unbroken suffers from an embarrassment of riches – with so many amazing things, I found myself constantly saying, “Okay, I get it.” War is hell. I get it. Being stranded at sea is full of endless perils. I get it. Zamperini showed amazing courage and integrity in the face of unimaginable adversity.
I get it.
Everything, from the overwrought soundtrack which swells with emotion just moments into the film (and stays there for the next two hours) to the canned dialogue (“A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory”) is designed to pull at your heartstrings, to put you in awe of this man’s incredible strength.
But it’s not their moments of strength that make Walter White and Tony Soprano such compelling, realistic characters. It’s their moments of weakness. And Zamperini doesn’t have any. After the first 10 minutes of the movie, he doesn’t grow or change. He was determined and steadfast from the moment the movie started to the very end. There is no arc. He was perfect almost from the very beginning.
Sure, that might be true true. But it’s definitely not believable.