Fans of the 2010 Laura Hillenbrand best-seller Unbroken won’t be disappointed with Angelina Jolie’s film adaptation, not until the final credits begin to roll, and they realize that a rather important part of the story was left on the cutting-room floor.
Jolie, who directed, and the Coen Brothers, who wrote the screenplay with Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, decided to recast the story of Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini, who survived 47 days at sea after his plane was shot down, then survived years of brutality in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, as Passion of the Christ, focusing on the suffering, with side orders of more suffering, and additional courses of even more suffering.
Left out was what made Hillenbrand’s book the best-seller: the redemption.
Zamperini, who passed away earlier this year, at the age of 97, 69 years after World War II came to an end, didn’t walk off the plane, kiss the American soil beneath him and then ride off into the sunset, happily ever after. The toll of injuries physical and psychological was, understandably, almost too much for him to bear postwar, and his life spiraled toward an end that we have seen far too much in the decades since with soldiers returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder, until Zamperini found religion in the form of a Billy Graham crusade.
Jolie’s film gives us a heaping helping of what should have broken Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), with the story alternating at the outset of the presentation between the war and his upbringing in a series of flashbacks that take us back to his childhood, the beginning of his running career and a brief overview of his experience in the 1936 Olympics, which for some reason leaves out by far the best part, that after his mad dash at the end of his 5,000-meter final he actually met and had a brief audience with a fawning Adolf Hitler.
The attention then shifts to a lengthy retelling of Zamperini’s 47 days at sea after his plane was shot down, after which the story becomes less the story of Zamperini and more the story of The Bird (Takamasa Ishihara), the tyrannical POW camp commander who takes special delight in torturing the former Olympian under his thumb.
O’Connell does little more than grimace for the last hour of the film as the story focuses on what The Bird does to torture him and the other U.S. and Western prisoners, and their utter despair upon learning that their captors have been issued shoot-to-kill orders if and when the Allies get close to victory.
The hopelessness is presented expertly with cinematography by Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men) highlighting the dehumanizing conditions in the POW camps.
The closest we get to the redemptive theme in Hillenbrand’s book is a scene in which The Bird forces a near-death Zamperini at gunpoint and the threat of death to military-press a heavy board over his head, which is played in the movie as the climax of the POWs’ effort to endure, and therefore conquer, their captors’ best, and worst.
But there was still more for Zamperini to endure, and conquer, after the war, and for some reason, Jolie decides to give us that important part of the story in a series of quick-moving slides, glossing over Zamperini’s continued descent, then revival, the role that his decision to forgive his captors played in his personal redemption, and his triumphant return to the Olympics, and Japan, carrying the Olympic torch before the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, in an all-too-brief coda at the end of the movie.
What made Zamperini’s story so compelling in Hillenbrand’s telling isn’t what he endured as a POW, but that he didn’t let what he endured as a POW define the rest of what turned into a long, productive, inspirational life.
Jolie gives us the bare details of a slice of his life that almost feels gratuitous.
– Review by Chris Graham