‘Unbroken:’ A Film About Forbearance and Forgiveness

December 25, 2014 Updated: December 26, 2014

Lost at sea on a rubber raft. No food. You try to eat a seagull. Doesn’t go down well (it comes right back up), so you eat small sharks raw. Constant vigilance is necessary; bigger sharks leap into the raft to get at you. Storms. Only rainwater to drink. Try that for 47 days. Then get captured by hostile forces and beaten black and blue, for a long, long, time.

They say karmic debt is paid off through suffering. Judging by the amount of suffering done by lead character Louie Zamperini in the Angelina Jolie-directed “Unbroken,” (a true story) Zamperini paid off all his karma, his family’s, extended family’s, and that of all the townsfolk in his hometown of Torrance, Calif.

“Unbroken” is an unmitigated pain-fest. That being said, what’s the payoff of paying off karmic debt? In his case, an extreme change of heart, the growth of his compassion, and the ability to forgive.

The movie isn’t able to get inside Zamperini’s head to convey the prodigious suffering the way the written word was able to.

Angelina Jolie already proved with her first film “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” that she’s a director to be taken seriously. While “Unbroken” is not riveting storytelling, it still shows promise of her blossoming into a filmmaker of real significance.

We find ourselves immediately aboard a U.S. B24 bombing raid of Japanese islands, circa 1944. Our man Zamperini is a bombardier. During the ensuing bombing and strafing runs, and the mayhem of cockpit and gun-turret back-and-forth hollering, we get flashed back to when little Louie was a young juvie, stealing, smoking, and fighting.

Older brother Pete (John D’Leo), observing the alacrity with which Louie hightails it away from certain retribution (after getting caught loitering under the bleachers for reasons of skirt-peeping), gets Louie to start running track.

This is Louie’s best thing, and he eventually runs for America in the 1936 Olympics. The great Jesse Owens was a bunkmate, and Louie shook hands with Hitler, remembering him as a dangerous clown.

Jack O'Connell stars as track-and-field Olympian and World War II hero Louis
Jack O’Connell stars as track-and-field Olympian and World War II hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini in “Unbroken.” (Universal Pictures)

Back to the battle: weeks later, Louie’s same crew goes out to recover downed pilots on another B24, nicknamed “The Green Hornet,” which was pretty much patched together with spit and baling wire. It falls apart and crash-lands in the Pacific.

This leads to a large portion of the story that’s sort of a poor man’s “Life of Pi.” As mentioned: three survivors, endless drifting, “sushi” eating, flare popping at ridiculously distant airplanes, crispy bacon-skin, and shark world.

The pain escalates when 47 days later, the two remaining survivors (one of which of course is Louie) are captured by a Japanese destroyer. Finally back on land, they get slammed into solitary confinement in too-small bamboo shacks with mud, filth, dysentery, tiny rations, and big spiders, enforced silence, and mock executions.

Enter Japanese army sergeant Watanabe (played by Japanese rockstar Miyavi), an effeminate sadist who takes an instant dislike to Louie and makes an example of him.

The main form of torture: vicious beatings with a bamboo staff. Another: at one point “The Bird,” (as they call the sergeant) has the entire camp’s worth of inmates line up and each punch Louie in the face. Hard.

(L–R) “The Bird” (Miyavi) torments Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) in “Unbroken.” (Universal Pictures)

Thankfully “The Bird” eventually gets orders to take his services elsewhere. Then Louie gets transferred to another camp, becoming a human coal-hauling machine, in an eternal state of deep coal-filthiness and exhaustion.

Apparently the book is way worse. The movie, while it tries hard, isn’t able to get inside Zamperini’s head in a way that realistically conveys the prodigious suffering the way the written word was able to.

Regardless, the movie’s still a pain-fest that just won’t quit. It’s probably around the time of the long line of face-punching that one begins to cower down in one’s seat and stay there, averting eyes and trying to think happy thoughts.

What Might Have Been

Much has been made of the casting, but the choice of a Brit to play an Italian-American was not perhaps the best. Granted, there are a handful of Brits, including Tom Hardy, Christian Bale, and Bob Hoskins, who play Americans better than Americans.

Jack O’Connell, even with hair dyed black, so clearly lacks anything Italian in his psyche and physique, it’s always a slight shock to be reminded of Zamperini’s ethnicity. When we finally see the real Zamperini in a “Schindler’s List” type tribute, the choice is even more baffling, although Jolie claims the actor and the movie subject have a similar energy and physicality.

O’Connell’s a fledgling movie star though, for sure. Look for him to make a big splash in the future with more appropriate casting.

The early plane-interior scenes are flat and devoid of any tension. Though there’s lots of noise and movement, one is acutely aware that these are actors saying lines, and that is a fake plane, and those little flak explosions are CGI.

The Allied prisoners are made to haul coal in a Japanese POW camp, as portrayed in
The Allied prisoners are made to haul coal in a Japanese POW camp, as portrayed in “Unbroken.” (Universal Pictures)

The first take-away from this movie is forbearance: Zamperini’s outrageous marathon encounter with physical and psychological pain, and his ability to endure it when giving up would have been extremely easy to do.

What could have been a second, greater takeaway, would have been witnessing the extent to which humans are capable of enduring evil, and then forgiving and letting go.

All that pain, horror, and loss of hope built up huge amounts of debilitating hatred and resentment in Zamperini’s soul. He suffered from years of nightmares of wanting to strangle “The Bird.”

Which means he did return to America, broken. The nightmares persisted. He woke up one night strangling his wife. She finally finds faith, and decides not to divorce Louie. That gave him the strength to follow suit; at which point all nightmares left him for good.

We don’t get to see this transformation: the film jumps from prison-release to sentences on a darkened screen, saying that Louie was able to forgive his tormentors.

The full-on, Aristotelian cathartic experience, moving us by way of emotional empathy with the protagonist, and thereby anchoring the experience in the heart as well as the head, would have done the subject full justice.


Director: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Takamasa Ishihara (Miyavi)
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Release date: Dec. 25
Rated PG-13

3 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch