Film and TV

Unbroken Is the Most Literal Film of the Year

There's something curiously airless about director Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, the story of real-life Olympian and WWII P.O.W. Louis Zamperini. Early on, Louis (Jack O'Connell) and his fellow American soldiers are zipping through the golden skies, dogfighting with Japanese planes — and even though the B-24's doors are open and the wind is wild, their hair is perfectly in place. When shot, the men do not bleed. When they die, their corpses smile. When enemy planes explode, they do so in glorious puffs. The effect is applause-worthy and antiseptic — a war film that wants to sell bleach.

Unbroken is the most literal film of the year: It's wholly the tale of a victim who won't crack. Make that three films: It plays like several shorts edited end to end. The first takes place during the Dust Bowl, which you can tell because of all the visible dust. This segment is a cheery tale of an immigrant boy made good, a kiddie thug (C.J. Valleroy plays young Louis) who sneaks booze into milk bottles and goes home to a dear Italian mama who makes gnocchi from scratch and prays for his soul. Louis gets his life on track only when his older brother Pete (Alex Russell) encourages him to run. He's a natural, setting high-school records without breaking a sweat, racing the fastest lap at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and, later, continuing to train while stationed in the Pacific during the war, where he optimistically hopes he'll return to show off his 4:12 mile in the Tokyo Olympics.

The second and third acts are nightmares. On a routine rescue mission, Louis's plane crashes into the ocean, killing eight of the eleven men aboard. We gasp when we see his leg pinned under the fuselage — will he ever race again? Very quickly, it's clear that winning a gold medal is the least of his problems. Jolie settles into the survivors' raft for a long stretch at sea, where, unlike the high-flying heroics of the opening scrap, we feel every creak and breeze.

It's miserable stuff, a total tonal shift, and I haven't even mentioned the sharks. Yet it gets even worse when the boys are scooped up by the Japanese and shoved into separate P.O.W. camps. What follows is unceasing torture, on screen and vicariously, in the theater. At the hands of pretty-boy war criminal Mutsushiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), the Americans are beaten and beaten and beaten.

By then, the life raft is leagues away, the marmalade childhood farther still. But we're no closer to figuring out the point of Unbroken, other than to marvel at Louis's strength. Undoubtedly, the real Louis Zamperini was a true hero — a word also used to describe American Sniper's Chris Kyle shooting up 160 Iraqis one theater away. Yet what makes Zamperini a role model isn't his appetite for death; it's his gift for forgiveness. After a full hour of P.O.W. torture, with enough blood and bruises to make even modern pacifists want to build a time machine and avenge themselves on the Imperial Japanese Army, Jolie lets us know in a crawl that after Zamperini was freed in 1945, he went home, found God, and returned to Japan five years later, where he embraced his former captors. Now, that takes courage.

Yet Jolie is more fixated on gore than grace. In making us feel every crushing blow — the better to burnish her reputation as a serious director — we're shortchanged on the beauty of Zamperini's story, and we exit blinking into the theater lobby with our hands still clenched in fists. Unbroken wants it all: the big cinematography, the close-up grit, the postcard flashbacks and the grisly Götterdämmerung that earns directors awards. But it aches for a lighter touch; the facts of Zamperini's life more than stand on their own.

Still, in the lead role, O'Connell is an excellent punching bag. He has the look of St. Sebastian, all model cheekbones and misery. Many of the humans here feel like props, but when the camera pans over O'Connell, he confidently stares back. Over and over, he repeats a mantra learned from his older brother: "If I can take it, I can make it."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.