"If you can take it, you can make it"
Plenty of actors have had a stab at going behind the camera, some with more success than others.It’s easy to forget for example that veteran directors like Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford were actors first. Over the last decade, younger actors-turned-directors like Ben Affleck and Sofia Coppola have impressed critics and audiences alike with films that often found a balance between artistic intentions and commercial appeal. Most notably Argo for Affleck and Lost in Translation for Coppola; with both picking up Academy awards in the process, even if the Oscars weren’t actually for directing. Joining this group is Angelina Jolie with her second directorial outing - Unbroken.Her 2011 debut In the Land of Blood and Honey was a romantic wartime drama set during a conflict most Americans had never heard of (Bosnia) and starring unknown local actors who had lived through the war themselves. Despite this, the film was derided by a Serbian film director as having "the historical authenticity of 'Allo Allo!'', and Serbians in general objected to their portrayal, as they saw it, as one-dimensional bad guys. The film was also lambasted for its clumsy screenplay by Jolie, and attracted the slightly more unfair accusation of being 'too earnest'.
So for Unbroken, Jolie signed up the Coen brothers to do the (surprisingly average) screenplay, although her earnest touch is still very much in evidence. She also ditched obscure geopolitics in favour of the more commercial appeal of a film adaptation of a bestselling book (Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand). Like her debut film however, none of the main actors in Unbroken are very well-known, and most are not even American. The film is set in a war guaranteed to swell American chests with pride, and tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, played by English actor Jack O'Connell ('71), a one-man composite of the most revered American hero types (immigrant underdog made good, successful and attractive sportsman, war hero and born-again Christian).
The story is strong, all the more so for being true. After a bad start as a bullied Italian-American juvenile delinquent swigging hooch from an old milk bottle painted white, Louis pulls up his socks under the mentorship of his older brother Pete and eventually becomes a distance runner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Louis enlists in 1941 and in 1943 his damaged plane crashes en route to a rescue mission out of Hawaii, leaving him and two other survivors. His castaway companions are Russell 'Phil' Phillips, played by Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina), and Francis 'Mac' McNamara played by up-and-coming American Finn Wittrock.
For 47 days they float in their inflatable raft menaced by sharks below and Japanese above, living on rainwater, fish and seabirds. 'Mac' dies, and Louis keeps his and Phil's spirits up by talking dreamily about his mother's gnocchi (would any American in 1943 apart from an Italian one know what gnocchi was?) In a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, Louis and Phil are picked up (one hesitates to say 'rescued') by a Japanese warship and sent to a POW camp, where they are separated, beaten and starved. Louis's two and half years in various POW camps are made even worse by the personal vendetta waged against him by the camp (in both senses) head Mutsuhiro 'Bird' Watanabe. Why the Bird singled Louis out for so much bad treatment is a bit of a mystery, but in the book at least Louis recalls that the Bird's beatings were accompanied by 'an expression of sexual rapture'.
Both Americans survive the war and return home, where Jolie chooses to end Louis's story with a scene of him kissing the tarmac. The end credits reveal he 'devoted his life to God' and ran in the Torch relay for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagoya at the age of 80. The Bird, by now a life insurance salesman believe it or not, refused to meet him. In reality though, far from being unbroken, post-war Louis was a broken alcoholic who didn't find salvation until a Billy Graham meeting turned him into a born-again Christian speaker. He died the year the film came out in 2014, aged 97. It's a pity Jolie didn't delve into Louis's darker side or his post-war life to better illustrate the themes of forgiveness and redemption.
The film has good intentions and looks lovely, just like its director, but ultimately fails to engage at an emotional level.
Unbroken lacks a compelling aspect found in other Japanese POW war films of note such as Bridge over the River Kwai and Empire of the Sun, namely that the main characters undergo a transformation of the soul or some sort of rite of passage that changes and haunts them. Alec Guinness unwittingly turns traitor and Christian Bale's spoilt colonial brat grows up the hard way, but Louis seems to remain boringly 'unbroken' whatever life throws at him. As a break from all this earnestness, at least we have the sinister Watanabe, Louis's Japanese nemesis, who Jolie seems to have modelled on Ryuichi Sakamoto's heavily made-up captain in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. The real Bird was a stocky, thuggish Japanese but as played by willowy androgynous Japanese musician Miyavi (real name Takamasa Ishihara) Louis's tormentor looks more like a peevish ladyboy than a Class A war criminal.
With a sterling story and a script by the Coen brothers, frankly this film should have been a lot better. The dialogue is clunky and unnatural, for instance when Louis boards the train to go to war in Europe and Pete shouts from the platform: 'A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory!' He would have been more likely to shout, 'Write and tell me what the girls and the beer are like!' Maybe Pete did actually spout such parting wisdom, or maybe that is the way Louis remembers it, but I suspect it is an projection of Jolie earnestness. Despite the many moving or traumatic moments in the story - the 47 days lost at sea, Mac's death, the torture scenes, the end of the war and Louis's release from the camp and his return home - the film scenes have negligible emotional impact, even when accompanied by the gushing and generically emotive score by Academy Award nominee Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game). The music feels slotted into these scenes like a laugh track for a recorded comedy show. And the inclusion of a sappy original Coldplay song 'Miracles' over the end credits feels cheap and Pearl Harbor-ish.
Theme and imagery are handled in an unsubtle way. The theme of Christian forgiveness is introduced at the beginning when Louis and his family attend a church sermon about forgiveness being better than revenge, but the audience does not know until the end credits that Louis went to Japan after the war to make peace with his erstwhile tormentors. Imagery of crosses and Christianity abound; the opening shot of airborne planes resembles a squadron of crosses, the climactic camp scene of Louis forced to hold a massive wooden plank over his head by The Bird could not look more 'Jesus with crucifix' if it tried, and even bathroom taps are made to resemble crosses. Released at the end of the war, the filthy camp prisoners immerse themselves joyfully in the nearby river as if being baptised.
Possibly stung by the accusations of bias aimed at her debut film, Jolie makes sure we see that the Japanese suffered too, during the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima but also the fire bombings of Tokyo which killed more people than both atomic bombs combined. Having said all that, there are some impressive cinematic moments. The opening scene of dozens of B-24s flying at sunset (or sunrise) through enemy fire is majestic, with visceral sound effects to match. The distant and tiny figure of Hitler saluting in the vast arena of the Berlin Olympics, and the elegant menace of sharks (complete with a Jaws moment when a massive shark's head suddenly rears up over the side of the inflatable) are well executed. Overall, the film has good intentions and looks lovely, just like its director. Angelina Jolie may yet find her groove in the director's chair, but for now watching her films feels a lot like being asked to sponsor an acquaintance's charity fun run.
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