Unbroken is based on the incredible true story of Louie Zamperini. It is also based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best seller, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.” This is an important addendum to note. The challenge for filmmakers in bringing someone’s life to the screen is not thinking up the person’s story. It’s figuring out how to tell it (Where do you begin? Where do you end? What is important?). In this adaptation’s case, the challenge—and ultimate struggle—is figuring out how much to tell.
Zamperini grew up with Italian-immigrant parents, became a star track runner at school and competed in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Thrown into bombardier duty during World War II, he survived a plane crash over the Pacific Ocean, stayed alive on a raft and then suffered through a Japanese POW camp. His life, as documented extensively in Hillenbrand’s book, has been covered in other memoirs, books, and television shows. Even by an episode during Shark Week. So, it is understandable that director Angelina Jolie didn’t find it necessary to cover this man’s entire life, not even a majority of it, in her second feature film. She goes right for the pain.
In some ways this decision works , mostly as a character study of resilience and depiction of real-life brutality. But as a mass-marketed holiday release, it slowly becomes problematic, turning into a taxing and punishing device. There is suffering, and then there is watching suffering to the point of exhaustion, until it unintentionally upgrades to frustrating pain, to just uncomfortable. Authenticity is always an ideal but it’s not a requirement for entertainment. At a certain point in retelling events, it is enough–even liberating– to realize we will never fully contemplate Louie’s experiences.
Of course, a certain respect must be given to Jolie for at least trying to give his bravery and mental durability a cinematic treatment. You don’t necessarily feel her presence (the film feels like it could belong to anyone) as a director but you can tell she’s put a lot of thinking and craftsmanship into certain scenes. Take the film’s opening, aboard the cramped confines of a bomber plane on a beautifully clear day. The landscape that surrounds the group of young men navigating through wartime airspace is completely blue. Just as quickly, pimples of black and white smoke blemish the sky. Fighter planes swoop and surround them. Louie (Jack O’Connell) acts resourcefully weaving between the cockpit and narrow aircraft bridges. His men get hit and start bleeding. The internal chaos consumes the previous serenity so much that you start scanning the horizon looking just as hard for oncoming gunfire as Louie is with his binoculars.
The film flashes back, often haphazardly, to Louie’s rapscallion childhood, sneaking alcohol as a boy and getting into fights. His parents don’t need policemen adding onto their established prejudice. He eventually finds the track team to occupy his time–he can really sprint– and Louie quickly becomes a weekly winner in high school races. “If you can take it, you can make it,” says his brother. “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” Apparently he only speaks in platitudes. Soon Louie is heading to the Olympics and standing in front of Nazi flags about to run the biggest race of his life. Jolie moves so quickly that when Louie makes a late comeback in the 5,000 meters and finishes as the first American runner, you actually think he’s come in first place.
We see this past interspersed between the film’s climactic present. When the old plane that Louie and several other Army Air Corps members are flying starts its fateful descent into the Pacific, Jolie cuts back to Germany. Maybe she’s putting us into Louie’s racing mind as he prepares for a crash but it diffuses that moment’s momentum. The retrospectives end there, thankfully, as if to remind us of Louie’s static state at sea. He escapes the cockpit and swims gracefully to the surface as a few crewmembers flank him, sinking away. It’s a haunting, beautiful image before the three survivors lose their own beauty.
There, he and the two other soldiers (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) float on their life rafts for a month and a half. They get sunburns, eat birds, and scare away sharks. The moment starts to feel like a lifetime. It’s a quiet, silent kind of torture so it still works as a prelude to the more conventional kind, when Japanese boats pick them up and imprison them.
The screenplay is credited to four writers—the Coen brothers, Richard LaGravense and William Nicholson—and they’re wise to keep these two periods of time from getting chopped up with more flashbacks. A separate film might have been made just about the sadistic Japanese corporal Watanabe (Miyazi), who treats Louie like a dog. He beats him with a bamboo stick. He makes him an example. Some of this is shown in its brutal capacity. But Jolie has to work to give the two and a half years he spent there some new texture. This is when Roger Deakins’ cinematography comes in handy. At one point prisoners are forced to line up and punch Louie in the face. They start at midday and by a cinematic sunset, Deakins is capturing Louie set, too.
Unbroken has that old-fashioned kind of coloring to it. The central tension boils down to Louie beating Watanabe, physically and mentally. This is when you start remembering the priest from Louie’s childhood preach, “Love thine enemy.” It builds to a messianic image of Louie holding up a wooden beam. It’s a powerful scene that should be more powerful. The problem is you know the film’s title and it’s taken too long to get there. The film ends in a coda, with quick title cards describing Louie’s post-war devotion to Christianity. It’s basically a tidy afterthought. Jolie has made her subject Christ but only cares about the Passion.
The Gambler put me in a bad mood. Its apathy became contagious, which isn’t a particularly positive trait for a film about gambling. Part of the problem is that the star, Mark Wahlberg, forgets to be Mark Wahlberg. Usually a congenial and lively screen presence, here he seems like he wants to leave every scene. He wears sunglasses inside the underground Japanese casino halls he frequents at night. When he bets away ten thousand dollar blue chips during blackjack, you can’t tell if he’s winning or just throwing his life into extreme jeopardy.
The latter happens many times in director Rupert Wyatt’s remake of the 1974 classic. That starred James Caan in a grimy vision of New York City. But that film, written by James Toback, also had a foundation, an understanding of why the man we paid to see was so eager to gamble everything away. Wahlberg, as Jim Bennett, never really gambles though. That implies a risk is being taken. The only risk Wahlberg takes is subduing himself so much that you forget this guy was screaming in Transformers over the summer.
This story, written by William Monahan, takes place in Los Angeles where it tries on Michael Mann’s nocturnal jacket. Borrowing from the original, which was based on a Dostoyevsky novel, Bennett comes from a wealthy family—he says goodbye to his dying father at the beginning—and teaches English literature at a nearby college as a day job. His central predicament is a $240 thousand dollar debt that involves two other loaners (an excellent Michael K. Williams and John Goodman) that don’t take his carefree habits lightly.
Prowling the sidelines is an underwritten part for Brie Larson, playing one of Bennett’s students. The first thirty minutes she raises her eyebrows until the story has something for her to do, which is mostly flirt with professor. Bennett singles her out in class one day for being a prodigy but never exhibiting her skills. He basically degrades everyone in the class. It’s a way of transferring his own failures after writing a one hit wonder first novel. His lectures range from Camus to Shakespeare and it’s hard to take Wahlberg seriously as he recites their prose and history. This isn’t his comfort zone.
Wyatt tries to show Bennett’s obsession but doesn’t have anything fresh for it. He drives with basketball games playing on his cellphone in the passenger seat and at one point he kicks a television by his bathtub when the game doesn’t go his way. These clips, like many, feel cut from some larger subplots. Instead, most of the drama hinges on how long Bennett stays at the blackjack table and how many times a hesitant dealer will be told to just deal the cards. Every time he “hits” they look at him like he’s crazy until they get confirmation he is a card flip later. Bennett turns change into gold and wants it to become platinum. Larson watches with excitement but the high turns into an overlong hangover.
She sits at a cocktail table for hours while he continues to lose everything. Her boredom seems etched into Bennett’s mother, played by a toxic Jessica Lange. She’s more complex and haunting but even she has to shed a tear. After clearing out her bank account to help him with his debt, she knows it’s about to be squandered that night.
There is a darker, intriguing film here but it’s constantly prodded away, condensed and made cleaner. It has an engaging soundtrack—it even features Searching For Sugarman’s Sixto Rodriguez—that plays with our perspective. Songs will start a scene and then fade into the world they serenade. That happens most prominently in the college’s hallway, where the choral cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” begins playing during some Jesse Eisenberg-like dialogue. It feels culled directly from The Social Network trailer. Bennett then leaves and passes a random group of children singing it in the music room.
Maybe he’s just a creep. Maybe Wyatt is going for some profound paranoia. You don’t get that from Bennett though. The only thing we see him eat is cereal! When Caan winds up at a Harlem whorehouse at the end of his film, you sense his need to “feel” something, however culturally insensitive. When Williams threatens Wahlberg with a knife, Wahlberg replies, “Everybody dies.” That’s when I gave up. It’s all building up to this finale, to see if Bennett can pay back his debts at which point he can run free across L.A. It’s supposed to be this liberating moment but it’s trapped by all of its shrugging.