Unbroken: A Film Review

First thing was, they gave all the attendees, several hundred of us, free big bags of popcorn and giant slurps of soda.  In the past, such freebies usually meant the movie we were about the see was stinko.  But we were told that the screening was a mixed one: part Academy invitees, part movie reviewers, part mystery meat.

It is a true story, as we figured out by closing credits. W ith practiced and stellar screenwriters like the Coen brothers, we expect smart writing, pacing, storyline, and developments along the way.

And there’s no denying that the long film depictions of three men in a yellow neoprene rubber raft for 47 days before they are captured by the Japanese and interned in a hellhole of deprivation and wanton torment by sadistic commander Watanabe makes one thirsty and hungry.  Asked what he thought of the film, one associate had but one word: “Long.”  The protagonists grow emaciated and filthy by degrees, threatened by sun, salt water, hunger, sharks, storms, and giant waves.  Then tossed into dark, dank, blighted cells before they are aggregated as unwilling slave labor for the classically brutal Japanese in several prison camps.

UNBROKEN relates the trouble-spackled life of Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell), an Olympic runner taken prisoner after many days at sea with two Air Force by your horrendous Japanese forces during WWII.  Seems that, with IMITATION GAME and other WWII sagas running currently, this is the look-back at the Greatest Generation season.

The problem is that we have seen this before, with less picturesque flyboys in the key roles.  In BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, the men were not lovely of face, with glistening white teeth and no growth of beards after endless days sans hygiene rescue.  In a Colin Firth factual biopic, the powerful THE RAILWAY MAN (2013), the savage Japanese seemed more real, the tortures more routine and less prettified.  Our hero, Louis Zamperini, an athlete from Torrance, California, who ran in the Olympics, is handsome as hell, and he suffers picturesque torments.  Yet when he emerges on the other side, he is no thinner than any healthy frat boy would be, his skin untroubled and unpunctured by the beatings and starvation and privations he sustained.  The American men are interned, starving, but they are, amusingly to us, just a bit more robust than all the Japanese guarding them.

We understand: while Jolie's latest is competent enough, it lacks a formalistic look.  There are no heightened Jolie-esque set pieces or particularly memorable scenes – though the cold, snowy sweeps of the northern Japanese prison camp come closest to indelible, with the calligraphic ascending queue of hundreds of American POWs sooted nearly grease-black by the coal-dust they are forced to mine, carry, and transfer.  Nothing particularly says this could have been done only by Jolie, like David Lean in his immaculate LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962).  Perhaps that cavil is unfair, as she is here a novice on this side of the camera.  There’s lots of string left in that skein.

More important is the arid sense of the film’s trajectory – you just don’t care all that much about the protagonists.  They are too quickly healed.  Their skin is too pristine, those American pearly whites never gummy with confinement plaque.  Their bodies are not as emaciated as you think they would be.  The handsomeness of the POWs seems not…quite…right, their shaven faces, sturdy boots, and untroubled eyes a signal that this is, after all, only a movie of a “true story.”  Early on, and for too long, there are too many featureless days bobbing, sluggish and sunburned, asea.  There are questions about how the men found anything to drink.  They ate, of course, the fresh-from-the-drink captured precursors to what we eagerly scarf down as sushi – without the soy sauce or wasabi.  One man dies seemingly because he decided to die: “I shall die, I think, tonight.”  And he does.

Thanks to the director, with Jolie and Pitt wizards of PR and self-promotion, the film will garner lots of ink, and it is having umpteen previews (with popcorn and soda).  To us, and despite loads of yen and yin expended on production and sets, UNBROKEN seems an extent of punishment, with occasional moments of interest and “acting.”

In its favor is the anhistoric public, who have not been exposed to this theme for a while, but for late-night reruns of WWII classics on Turner Classic Movies.  This film goes some distance in coloring in the privations and scalding truths of armored belligerency on the world stage.  It may educate a few of the feckless and frivolous.

The stirring Victorian poem “Invictus”penned by William Ernest Henley in 1875, published in 1888 – accomplishes much the same defiant clarion, in less than a minute:

Out of the night that covers me / Black as the Pit from pole to pole /

I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul…

UNBROKEN is no KWAI, and maybe not everyone’s cup of sake, but we will no doubt hear much more of quality from the feisty Jolie.  This is at the least a noble effort.