“We’re gonna die.” It’s an understandable reaction to a circumstance like the one facing Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and his fellow castaways Phil (Domnhall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock), as they look out on an endless blue Pacific. Still, first Phil and then Louie reject Mac’s dire pronouncement. “Tell him to shut up,” says Phil. And so Louie does, speaking his resolve and frustration: “Shut up, Mac”.
So begins the middle act in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, a wholly unabashed, mostly unsubtle tribute to Zamperini. In this inglorious moment, just after their B-24 has crashed into the sea in 1943, you see that he’s simultaneously estimable and flawed. To be sure, his story is extraordinary, thrilling, and tragic, familiar as old World War II movies and also terribly and apparently forever timely, focused as it is on torture and the limits of vision that might inform it. Recalled in Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book and here made grandly episodic in the manner of cinematic versions of the Bible and The Hobbit, Louie’s story is ideal for such epic scale, yet it’s also too complicated to be reduced to such notorious generic confines.
Unbroken tries a few tricks to dodge these confines. It cuts back and forth in time; it draws parallels between different modes of prejudice and abuse; it pictures external events (the 1936 Olympics where Louie ran in the 5000-meter race and apparently spotted and admired Jesse Owens [Bangalie Keita] from across the track); and it also imagines Louie’s elusive interior life, not in letters home read aloud or even earnest discussions with other prisoners, but instead, and more shrewdly, in repeated tight frames on his face. In these moments, he’s thoughtful and pained, increasingly gaunt and injured during his years in Omori, a Japanese POW camp. Appropriately heartbreaking, these close-ups manage more effective storytelling than the overbearing music score or gigantic shots, conveying little context but lots of instruction on how to respond.
One of these big shots opens the movie, as the frame appears to pan over a sky full of clouds, a vista interrupted by a squadron of fighter planes, flying in formation, imposing and awful too, about to drop bombs on tiny specks of targets below. As the plane bearing Louie, a second lieutenant in the US Air Force, engages in a firefight, the back-and-forth is at once hectic and harrowing, whether men are bloodied or missions accomplished. The movie uses Louie’s face as a means to cut back, to show him as a boy assaulted by classmates calling him “wop” and “dago”, and then disappointing his parents by his childish rebellions, in particular a mother he adores, and observes making gnocchi and praying, both memories he calls up as a prisoner to help his fellows forget where they are.
The differences between the instances of Louis living in and maybe trying to make sense of his world rather than enacting a significant moment in his biography make for a movie that lurches a bit. This holds true even as Unbroken underlines the ways that childhood memories might help Louie survive, live rather than die out here. To be sure, some of Louie’s memories are underlined emphatically, even distractingly. These vignettes include when his brother, Pete (Alex Russell), who trains him to channel his athletic gift into a berth on the Olympic team, sends him off with the line, “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory,” and when he first spots the Japanese soldiers who rescue them from the sea and brutalize them in camp.
Of these soldiers, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi) is the most emphatically underlined. A monster whose own background remains offscreen, he regularly beats and torments Louie, demanding alternately that he look at him and then that he doesn’t, depending on how any given encounter might look to the other guards and prisoners assembled as audiences. That Mutsuhiro looks aware of those viewers, and plays a part to frighten or astound them, makes his violence seem calculated, not vain so much as pathological, and alarmingly performative. If the guard is not precisely self-aware, he does make the act of torture (and murder, which becomes a natural extension) into a scene you might recognize, not only from other movies or stories about torturers, damaged souls in need of punishing or saving.
Unbroken makes their eventual showdown into something of a climax, leading more or less to the end of the war. The drama in this scene is gigantic. This is unsurprising given that it is a contest over whether Louie can carry a heavy rail, a contest where two men’s wills and demons on sensational display. Here Jolie borrows, it seems, from a similar confrontation between Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables. Such effort to show effort feels like a big movie moment, rather than any moment someone might have lived.
Of course, you might debate the functions of movies, whether they might raise questions or reinforce assumptions about the evil of enemies or the integrity of heroes. In Angelina Jolie’s previous film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, some of these possibilities ran together in a confusing and provocative fashion. Here, morality is fixed, war breaking bodies but never compromising spirits. As the horrors are more absolute, in ways that movies like to make them, it appears that punishing and saving are only opposites.