Incredible true life stories during war time can often make riveting movies. Watching a man struggle against immense hardship and obstacles in order to overcome adversity is made all the more impactful because it happened in real life. To just name a few off the top of my head, I would say Rescue Dawn, Schindler’s List, and The Pianist all achieve this tinge of realism while also making the struggles of the men in them cinematic. However this is a tricky thing to pull off. Sometimes a movie can get bogged down in certain biographical details and loose the ability to make a compelling story. I think this is what happened with Unbroken.
Unbroken tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian American Olympic athlete who became an officer in the Air Force during World War II. On a rescue mission over the Pacific, his plane is shot down and only him and two others survive. Survive is a loose term given the fact that they drift on a life boat for over a month with very little to eat. When they finally get rescued, it is by the opposition, the Japanese, who put them in POW camps with overly sadistic rulers. Zamperini becomes a target for one of the men in charge and is forced to do several embarrassing and terrible things. The movie then turns into a never ending slog of watching this man get brutally beaten down by this commander. But he will never be broken! He will in fact emerge UNBROKEN!… Ugh.
My main issue with this movie is that I never got emotionally attached to Zamperini. His motives are never quite clear and his resilience is therefore groundless. I never understood what is going on in his head when he gets punched repeatedly by his fellow prisoners in order to save the life of another prisoner or when he must hold a beam over his head for several hours after he is caught faltering in his long work in the coal mine. The movie throws at the audience cliched sayings and events (he was a troublesome boy that gets saved by his passion for running) that fall on deaf ears because they seem to never have been uttered by a real human before. “If you can take it, you can make it.” is one saying that gets repeated again and again but it becomes a hollow rallying cry that doesn’t get to heart of his motivations. In fact the most riveting part of the story isn’t the climax that is depicted on every poster and highlighted in every trailer (the beam), but when he is trapped on a life boat with two other men. His motivations become quite clear. He wants to live and he wants everyone else that he is on that boat with to survive as well. So their efforts to catch fish, to dodge bullets from enemy planes, and to keep the spirits up of one man who is having a particularly rough time of it by describing how his mother makes gnocchi seem to be rooted in a reality that I can believe. Their natural villains: the sun and the sharks that surround them need no motivation because they are indifferent. They are nature at its base level. The relationship that he forms with one of the other men becomes touching because they are enduring this hardship together. I would have loved to see the movie end here where they board a ship that has rescued them. It would have been a very good film. Unfortunately it did not.
Once Zamperini gets to the POW camp and we are introduced to different characters, his motivations become hidden and the iciness that surrounds this character at the beginning reemerges. However it isn’t just his motivations that remain hidden. It is also the Japanese commander’s motivations. Why he decides to single this man out for an almost insane amount of punishment is never quite clear. The movie then just devolves into a simplistic Japanese: bad, American: good duality that is overplayed and a cheat. An audience member shouldn’t hate a person purely because he is Japanese, they should hate him because they have cause to do so. The movie becomes lazy, content with just showing you overlong torture scenes that seem to be strung together by the thinnest of threads. At a certain point I got numb to the violence and tuned it out. This made the beam scene, which is supposed to be the moment of emotional catharsis for the audience, less than impactful. It was just another scene of him getting tortured unfairly.