‘Unbroken’: Inspiring truth, uninspired film

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All too often, Hollywood presents a biopic, which is supposedly based on reality, but grossly exaggerates the central character’s actual accomplishments. “Unbroken,” the second film directed by Angelina Jolie, depicts the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete and World War II hero. By understating how drama-filled Zamperini’s life actually was, it errs in the opposite direction.

The film starts off with Zamperini (C.J. Valleroy as a youngster), during his early days as a school- aged incorrigible, growing up in Torrance, California. He’s smoking cigarettes and drinking booze out of a milk bottle painted white to obfuscate its actual contents. Taunted by his peers with “dago” and “whop” epithets, he often resorted to fisticuffs. Although Louis hailed from a well-respected immigrant family, he seems headed towards juvenile delinquency.

What saved Zamperini from a bleak future? His older brother, Pete (initially John D’Leo, then Alex Russell) convinced him to take up track. As a result of a natural speed coupled with a grueling training regimen, Zamperini (Jack O’Connell, starting as a teenager) became a success. In 1934, he set a world interscholastic record for running the mile. At the preliminary meet for the California state championships, Zamperini clocked in at 4:21.2 minutes. Bear in mind that Roger Bannister did not break the four-minute mile barrier until 1954. Before then, many supposed experts pronounced a sub-four minute mile to be physiologically impossible.

Zamperini competed for the 1936 U.S. Olympic team in the 5000 meters event. At the qualifying event, many of the competitors collapsed from heart exhaustion. Meanwhile, Zamperini finished the race with a sprint and tied American record-holder, Don Lash, for first place. At the tender age of 19, Zamperini became the youngest American to qualify for the Olympics in this event. Strangely, the film omits this exciting episode.

The much-celebrated 1936 Berlin Olympics, featured Jesse Owens, winning four gold medals. He shattered not only several world records, but the myth of Aryan superiority. This historical context is studiously ignored by the film.

Zamperini failed to medal at the Olympics, coming in eighth place. However, his patented sprint finish set a record for the final lap. Afterwards, Adolph Hitler shook his hand. A contemporaneous news account reported that Zamperini scaled a flagpole and stole Hitler’s personal flag. Wouldn’t these incidents, involving der Fuhrer, provide fodder for cinematic depiction? Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t think so.

In 1941, Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Force and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.  Two years later, Zamperini was serving on the Pacific island of Funafati and assigned to be a bombardier on “Superman,” a B-24. In one of the film’s best scenes, while flying over the Japanese-held island of Nauru on a bombing run, the plane comes under counter-attack by enemy anti-aircraft fire and attack by a Japanese zero. The damaged plane barely makes it back to their home base.

Why does the film insist that senior assigned the crew to fly “Superman” on another mission, even though the plane was not in decent condition? The film even provides an ill-advised jocular allusion to Helen Keller to describe the military leaders, who approved the decision. The only problem is that it never happened. What is the narrative benefit of distorting the truth-just a way to toss in a tasteless joke at the expense of Helen Keller?

In reality, Zamperini and his crew members were re-assigned to Hawaii and were assigned to a different B-24, the Green Hornet. Due to mechanical failures, the plane crashes into the ocean. Of the eleven-man crew, only Zamperini and two others, Russell Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis McNamara (Finn Wittrock), survived the crash landing.

Floating in a pair of rubber life rafts, the three men are subjected to shark attacks, huge storm waves, and being strafed by a Japanese pilot. Although McNamara dies, Zamperini and Phillips survive a remarkable forty-seven days at sea.

In the film, Zamperini and Phillips are shown being captured by seamen from a Japanese naval vessel. In reality, after drifting 2000 miles, the determined duo landed on the Marshall Islands, which was then occupied by Japanese forces. Is this a substantive difference? Perhaps not, but again what is the narrative advantage of deviating from the truth and understating the accomplishment?

Zamperini and Phillips were imprisoned at a series of Japanese military camps. At one of them, Ōfuna, a fellow prisoner was Major “Pappy” Boyington, the Marine Corps fighter ace.  In his memoir, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” Boyington references Zamperini. However, in this film, the colorful Boyington is nowhere to be seen.

One of the key plot threads involves Zamperini’s sadistic treatment by Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishimara). The film accurately designates Watanabe as a corporal, but incongruously makes him the commandant of several prison camps. In reality, Watanabe hailed from a wealthy family and assumed that he would be commissioned as an officer, like his brothers. When he was assigned the position as a lowly prison guard, it appeared to have fueled his rage. Watanabe’s many cruel acts are well-documented. Every day, he would beat prisoners.  In the process, he ruptured eardrums, broke teeth, fractured tracheas, and even tore off one man’s ear. When Watanabe discovers that Zamperini was an Olympian, he is singled out for particularly harsh abuse.

General McArthur compiled a list of Japan’s worst war criminals. Watanabe had the dubious distinction of being ranked twenty-third on the list. This salient historical fact is conspicuously omitted from the film.

I harbored high expectations for “Unbroken.” I had been taken aback by how adept Angelina Jolie was in her directorial debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” Here, her early promise seems evanescent. Jack O’Connell manifested incredible screen presence as the lead in , “Starred Up,” a small budget prison drama. Here, it is not evident. Similarly, Domhnall Gleeson, who was so endearing in “About Time,” registers as little more than a cipher in this film.

“Unbroken” is an adaptation of a top-rate best seller by Laura Hillenbrand. The screenplay bears the imprimatur of Joel and Ethan Coen. They have garnered 14 Academy Award nominations between them. These siblings are ordinarily reliable, both as screenwriters and directors. I am incredulous that they are culpable for this misbegotten  screenplay. It is fraught with a panoply of gratuitous lapses in historical verisimilitude and plagued with a poorly conceived narrative trajectory.

The one bright spot in this film is the performance by Takamasa Ishihara, cast as the psychologically twisted prison commandant. Performing under the stage name name, Miyavi, he is a popular singer-songwriter, guitarist, and record producer in his native Japan. As a musician, he has been on several world tours.

Watanabe admitted to deriving a sexual thrill from torturing the men under his control. Reportedly, he alternated between assaulting prisoners and offering them candy. Drawing from the androgynous sensibility that pervades the visual kei music microcosm, Ishihara infuses his character with gender-bending proclivities. He adroitly captures Watanabe’s unpredictable mood swings.

The film glosses over Zamperini’s post-war struggles with PTSD and his eventual involvement with the Reverend Billy Graham. Zamperini returned to Japan, where he preached a message of forgiveness. This film is encumbered with a running time, which exceeds two hours. Shouldn’t the poignancy of Zamperini’s  post-World War II spiritual journey have rated more than a passing mention within an end coda?

Louis Zamperini’s life story is quite inspiring. Unfortunately, this biopic is  disappointingly uninspired.

“Unbroken” **1/2 PG13 (for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language) 137 minutes

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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