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Review by Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette
I tend to be forgiving of film adaptations from a book because film is an entirely different medium. Movies rarely hit the emotional and philosophical depth of a well-written novel, but they can provide stunning visuals and an entertaining way to relive a good story. For me, the guidepost to a good adaptation is this: Does the film somehow retain the spirit of the original work?
Let me summarize my opinion of the film Unbroken in one sentence: Just read the book. Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s excellent narrative about a remarkable World War II veteran, topped bestseller lists and won readers’ acclaim when it was published in 2010. The original true story is a soaring account of survival, faith, and forgiveness.
Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut strives to hit the book’s emotional notes but fails due to a weak script and a few dismal casting choices. The movie, while compressing and eliminating a few events, does not stray from Hillenbrand’s book. Scrappy young Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner, joins the Army in World War II and goes down over the Pacific in a rusty old plane. Louie proves himself to be a survivor as he spends record time on an open raft and lives through a horrendous ordeal at several Japanese prison camps. It should make an incredible movie—and indeed, films like To End All Wars have retold stories of redemption amidst dehumanizing POW camp conditions.
Purely from a visual perspective, Unbroken succeeds in capturing the mood of the book. The beginning sequence—an air fight over the Pacific—pulses with excitement as Louie inches his way across a catwalk open to the ocean below. Sweeping wide-angle shots show masses of POWs stumbling under their loads, their skins black and red from a hell of grime and mistreatment. Other sequences, however, seem lame at best: Imagine Jaws on a raft.
Considering the script, the acting is solid. Jack O’Connell brings both compassion and defiance to his role as Zamperini. His is the only notable performance of the film, though. Takamasa Ishihara, who plays the Bird, is handsome but not nearly disturbing enough to play a sadomasochistic Japanese prison guard. Other actors, such as those who played Louie’s mother and one of Louie’s raft mates, acted well but did not get much screen time.
Jolie called on several famous screenwriters to doctor Unbroken, including the Coen brothers and one of the writers behind Gladiator. I’m not sure if this is a case of too many screenwriters spoiling the film, but the result overflows with on-the-nose dialog and a lack of character development. In the book, Hillenbrand spends several pages describing the backgrounds and personalities of many of Zamperini’s friends. In the movie, I could hardly tell who was who. Actors arrived onscreen, but the script did nothing to establish them as unique, relatable characters. Much of the film seemed shallow because characters repeated platitudes but did not really back them up through the plot. “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory,” Louie’s brother says. However, the script is so intent on packing all the major episodes of the book into the film that it does not slow down to make viewers feel the pain or the glory.
While I appreciated how the film mentioned and affirmed Louie’s faith, the lack of depth during the darkest moments of Zamperini’s life made belief in God seem trite. A priest at the beginning tells Louis’s church to love their enemies, but the film’s portrayal of the Bird does not seem all that dynamic, thus making Louie’s forgiveness less powerful. Some Christian commentators complain that the film should have shown Louie’s conversion, but I disagree—and so does Louie’s son. The film did not need to show Louie coming to the altar—it needed a subtler portrayal of faith backed up by an amazing story. The sad part is, I think this film could have delivered. Other excellent films suggest Unbroken’s potential. We spend enough time getting to know the characters in Life is Beautiful so we feel the heartbreak and injustice of the concentration camp. To End All Wars shows excruciating violence and yet affirms the emptiness of bitterness and the hope provided through biblical redemption. Unbroken tries to copy these emotions, but the result is unfortunately forgettable.
For me, the most moving moments of Unbroken come at the very end. Several title cards tell the rest of Zamperini’s life. We see a real clip of 80-year-old Zamperini carrying the Olympic torch in Japan. He’s smiling and waving, his bright face a witness to the power of forgiveness. Even after all he went through, his faith enabled him to visit his former persecutors, to love the people who once hated him.
To see a quick visual overview of Zamperini’s story, watch the movie. To let his story change your life, read the book.