Part of our admiration for athletes is we want to see their physical greatness as greatness of character. We apply these same expectations to actors and musicians as well, but we see in them artistic expression rather than an objective metric. In an athlete, we see the power of the human body and therefore someone who is able to push their physicality to extraordinarily levels must also be an extraordinary person overall. It’s why we’re shocked and disappointed that our sports idols can sometimes be scumbags—we expected more from healthy people who are really good at a game. Angelina Jolie‘s Unbroken labors under the impression that the measure of a man is in physical ability and little else. She has made a movie that is essentially torture porn but coated it in the veneer of respectability and triumph.
Following a rebellious childhood, Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) works hard to become an Olympian runner, and he races in the 1936 Olympics. His brother Pete (Alex Russell) teaches him the credo “If you can take it, you can make it,” which Zamperini follows through his harrowing travails in World War II when his plane crashes and he’s stranded at sea for 47 days. Zamperini’s life becomes worse when he’s “rescued” by the Japanese navy and thrown into a POW camp run by the cruel, twisted Mutsushiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Miyavi), who beats the prisoners mercilessly.
To be clear: nothing I write here is to dismiss or diminish Zamperini’s incredible story. My criticisms refer to the depiction of that story and where Jolie put her focus. She reduces the sum total of Zamperini’s accomplishments to positivity and physical endurance.
When Zamperini is at sea with fellow soldiers Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock), it’s not about three guys working together to survive. It’s about Zamperini and two other guys who also survived the plane crash, and how he did everything in his power to keep them alive. Sure, he has his moments of sadness and doubt, but when spirits are low, Good ol’ “Zamp” is there to talk about his mothers’ cooking and cheer everyone up. This may have happened, but it doesn’t feel real despite O’Connell’s strong performance. His actions feel like saintly endeavors.
But here’s the thing about saints: they’re boring. Unless I’m watching a story designed for children, I don’t want to see someone who is perfect in every way. There’s nothing wrong with competence or being good-hearted. But what’s admirable about characters is how they overcome personal shortcomings. That’s how we find a way to relate to them even if we don’t match up with the specifics. Unbroken contains its story to a guy who was inoffensively rebellious as a child (He secretly drank and leered at women! Scandalous!), and then never did anything wrong ever again because he worked hard at running.
Where Unbroken goes from a slightly mawkish survival tale to outright offensive is when Zamperini lands in the POW camp. At sea, Zamperini must show that he’s not only able to endure, but he’s also resourceful. In the POW camp, he’s tormented by Watanabe from day one. Watanabe breaks Zamperini’s nose, beats him with a stick, commands the other prisoners to punch Zamperini in the face, and then has him lift a heavy wooden beam under the threat of being shot if he drops it.
Watching Zamperini and other prisoners suffer physical torment is the second half of the film, and to Jolie, what makes Zamperini great isn’t a test of moral decisions or tough choices aside from some brief temptations. Zamperini’s struggle and by proxy the war is a matter of physical strength. “If you can take it, you can make it,” Zamperini tells one of his fellow prisoners. That’s a fine motivator when it comes to training, but it’s absurd when applied to war. War is horrific, cruel, and indifferent. Plenty of strong men died in World War II. The notion that only the strong survive is ridiculous, dismissive, and disgustingly reductive.
The most interesting part of Zamperini’s story comes from two sentences in the end credits that mentioned how he worked through severe post-traumatic stress, kept his promise to serve God, and then tried to forgive his captors. That’s an emotional journey I want to see. In our daily lives, forgiveness is so difficult, and he went to personally forgive the people who tried to kill him. That’s remarkable, and not a second of it is depicted on screen. Jolie would prefer we spend more time watching Miyavi swing a stick at the ground with the sound effect of someone crying out in pain.
Unbroken labors under the impression that it’s uplifting when really it’s just sadism coated in an awards-friendly sheen. Roger Deakins cinematography is gorgeous, but given the story Jolie is telling, it shouldn’t be. There shouldn’t be tranquil shots of people dying of thirst in their tiny raft; there shouldn’t be nicely framed wide shots of prisoners being forced to exercise in the cold. The fact that the real Louis Zamperini survived the war was a triumph for him, his family, and the life he chose to lead following the suffering he endured. Unbroken is a failure that mistakes physical strength for the strength of the human spirit.