The story of Louis Zamperini is astonishing. Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants, overcame racial barriers and early troubles at school by focusing on competitive running, an obsession that eventually took him to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Though he finished eighth in the 5000m race, his final lap time of 56 seconds was enough to catch the attention of Adolf Hitler, who requested a personal meeting. Following the Olympics, at the outset of the Second World War Zamperini enlisted in United States Army Air Forces and earned a commission as a second lieutenant. During a search and rescue mission, the B-24 upon which Zamperini was a bombadier malfunctioned and crashed into the ocean 850 miles south of Oahu. Drifting at sea for an incredible 47 days, Zamperini and his surviving crew-mates were eventually picked up by Japanese forces and sent to Tokyo’s Ōmori POW camp. The story is astonishing and yet Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s new film about Zamperini’s endurance, never pauses to consider just what’s so astonishing about it.
French author Albert Camus once wrote,“But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.” Do the characters in Unbroken endure because they believe their circumstance will improve or do they endure simply out of fear of death? Perhaps they go on just because they don’t know what else to do. There’s a scene in Unbroken in which Zamperini rejects an offer of Japanese radio executives to act as spokesperson for the American prisoners of war. Accepting the offer would improve his situation, and yet Zamperini refuses to slander his home country in the name of Japanese propaganda. It’s a moral decision, but what are his morals? What makes Zamperini unbreakable. The extremes which we are willing to endure can be overwhelming, but there’s no room for reflection in Jolie’s film.
Without this reflection, it’s often difficult to engage with Zamperini’s story. It’s not enough to show a man’s agony. Suffering without consideration just isn’t productive in storytelling, and so it becomes showing suffering for the sake of showing suffering. Yes, it’s clear that he’s a man of incredible will, but what does that mean? Where does his strength come from and how does he gather that strength during his years of enduring hardship? Angelina Jolie presents one piece of information following another, with cursory suggestions as to Zamperini’s spirit. It’s vague filmmaking in a film that demands deliberation. Unbroken hits a lot of beats that may raise some attention come awards season and yet it’s never clear what motivated Jolie personally to make this film.
It’s an ambitious film for such an inexperienced filmmaker, and despite admirable intentions, Jolie arguably does a disservice to Zamperini’s story with her lack of natural filmmaking instincts. She directs with the confidence of an accomplished filmmaker, but not the skill. There’s a sense that she may have seen things in other films and applied them directly, without regard as to whether its appropriate to the message she’s trying to convey. But the story is inherently interesting, Jolie’s work is competent – just not remarkable – and Unbroken is rarely not compelling.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with Unbroken, but the film doesn’t offer the insight that the subject demands. Everything is presented at face value – not poorly, but there’s no comment regarding the ideas of endurance, faith and the human spirit that the film appears to advocate. There’s a brief coda at the end of the film that reiterates an importance of faith in Zamperini’s life that just wasn’t a significant element of the film. Zamperini’s life an astonishing story rendered inferior as a result of systematic creativity.