After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
I have been holding off on reviewing Unbroken for a while now. Not for any particular reason, a combination of letting the dust settle after the Sony hacking scandal, and that simply put I just have not felt the urgency to promote it nor any compulsion to discuss it. However, with the Oscars tonight and Unbroken up for 3 (Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Editing) it seemed fitting that I might as well throw my thoughts out there for all to see.
The film directed by Angelina Jolie and written by the Coen Brothers, follows Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who enlists for the army only to wind up as a Japanese prisoner of war. The Japanese took a huge gamble heading into World War II alongside Germany, and as they lost millions of lives in their war effort, they also maintained some of the worst Prisoner of War Camps ever to be recorded. Their ideology during and after the war was one of fighting until the death, a theory of no surrender, but it was their extreme aggression towards Westerners and their allies that really set them apart. The treatment of soldiers and civilians who were either captured by Japan, or acquired from the Soviet Camps, was appalling and shrouded in controversy.
Video here (Caution: Images are disturbing)
These camps made up their own rules, ignored the guidelines set out by the Geneva convention and ensured that those civilians and soldiers who were captured were made to realise who they were dealing with. Very rarely was English spoken, beatings were regular, food was scarce and the tasks were long and arduous. There are interesting first hand accounts of this, many scary and horrifying stories but the facts remain consistent. It is no surprise then that when this film was being made, the denial of atrocities such as cannibalism, human experiments and torture has come to fruition. The poor treatment of the POW was not exclusive to Westerners either, as many accounts show harrowing actions taken against large quantities of civilians in China, Philippines and Indonesia.
It is a shame then, that a film about someone who has endured some of the worst possible treatment a human-being can withstand materialises into a tiresome movie too obviously attempting to tug at your heart strings. There are some truly great POW movies out there, that handle the cases with sensitivity and subtlety. However, despite the film looking and sounding good (see the Oscar nods for reference), it has clearly and rightfully been picked up on that it’s agenda was to emphasise so much on the pain endured to shock audiences rather than add any substance to a film about an astounding individual (see lack of Oscars for Direction/Screenplay etc).
The film did allow Jack O’Connell to grace our screens again, which is no bad thing. Plucked out of obscurity to star in Skins, giving an excellent performance in the downright horrible Eden Lake, to another captivating lead role in Starred Up, he has acquired deserved recognition as the next BAFTA rising star. He is destined for great things, and his performance in this film is no different to his others. He becomes Zamperini, you feel his pain but as the film title so conveniently gives away, he remains ‘unbroken’. With the ending provided for us before even viewing, the performance can only do so much to detract from this repetitive, overbearing film. We were offered little insight into why the Japanese behaved in that way, why they were being captured and any shred of character development was left just as that – a shred.
There was a clear opportunity to explore this with the Sergeant in charge of the camps he occupied Mutsuhiro Watanabe a.k.a ‘The Bird’. Zamperini was his favourite prisoner, his ‘number 1’, and he made Zamperini’s life a living hell. But why? What was his motivation? Was it just him? And did Zamperini just take it? The answer is No, there were many omissions, but to use this as an example, a simple inclusion of the plot to try and kill ‘The Bird’ could have added a glimmer of hope and something for the audience to hang on to. Instead, it remained bleak and heavy.
Zamperini is clearly a remarkable man, and as with many biopics there will always be omissions or artistic license. He withstood punishments that would have and did kill 1 in 3 people in these camps. Unbroken is a movie that focuses on that, it focuses on the extremes and despite Zamperini being ‘unbroken’ all I saw on screen was a man actually being broken. If being punched in the face, malnourished, tortured and beaten within an inch of your life doesn’t kill you then they just carry on. A focus on the larger picture would have elevated this film beyond a biopic of a man who simply did not die, because he was much more than that, and it was much more than that.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Zamperini, entering a war does not give others the right to treat individuals the way that he was treated, but the film was average at best. I will seek the book, and perhaps then I will get a truer and more honest idea of what this man was like.