There is no question that Louis Zamperini, the inspiration for the film Unbroken, lived through a long list of crazy experiences that would break most people. To put it simply, he is an inspiration; an inspiration with a story that deserves to be told. But even the craziest life doesn’t make the best movie when it comes to the overall film experience.
To sum up the man as simply as possible, Zamperini was an Olympian, a war veteran, and an all around extreme situation survivalist who went through far more in a few years than most do in a lifetime. His is a story worth being told, without a doubt worthy of a biography. That’s probably why everyone I know who has read the book based on Zamperini have trouble fully expressing the experience they just witnessed through the page, so awe struck by what one man was capable of overcoming. There’s so much to say about him that they can’t quite remember it all, even.
Other than seeing a short special during Discovery’s Shark Week earlier this year about three soldiers who were lost at sea during World War II, I had little knowledge past what my sister had to say about Zamperini (she is one of those readers I mentioned above), so let me fill you in on the basics: Zamperini made it to the Olympics prior to WWII for his skills as a runner, but then joined the war before he could fully start his athletic career on the world stage. During one search and rescue mission, Zamperini’s plane went down in the middle of the ocean and he and two other soldiers on his flight crew were lost at sea for 47 days. No, that’s not a typo: 47 days at sea with just an inflatable raft and the clothes on their backs. When they were finally rescued long past the expectations of such miracles, it was by the Japanese military, who took Zamperini to a POW camp.
Saying that Zamperini went through far more than any one person should ever go through is one of the biggest understatements there is, so why is it that the film based on these events doesn’t quite work? Same reason a lot of biographical films don’t: they’re not structured to fit into the typical build of an entertaining movie, especially when the filmmaker is trying to remain true to the story (as opposed to the looser “inspired by” route). Unbroken starts out strong with flashbacks and timeline blending of Zamperini’s childhood around the time when he started running, the Olympics, the war, but once he is lost at sea this editing technique slowly fades away to the more chronological approach so we can stay within the action. This isn’t necessarily something to complain about, though it was a little disappointing for me since I am a fan of the use of flashbacks (think 127 Hours and how memories are blended with the footage of James Franco restrained by the rock), and the story does hold it’s own for the most part. But this transition moves the film away from the type of entertainment that is just that. It’s no longer a crazy experience that we can lose ourselves in; it’s no longer a story that we can trick ourselves into experiencing lightheartedly because it just doesn’t seem real, it’s a history lesson in the tragedy of war.
Structurally, the movie eventually comes to the point where you start to ask, what next? We’ve jumped from one big event and traumatic experience to the next, and then we just sit in the last at the POW camp with no where to go. Eventually the war ends, and so does the movie. Zamperini is given one final F U moment towards the end of the film, but then honestly, he seems a little broken. Then the movie ends. He goes home, the screen goes black, and we get a few words about what happened next. Inspiring? Sure. Cathartic? Not quite.
Even though Zamperini’s story suffers slightly in this format, Unbroken is still worth seeing. Angelina Jolie does a decent job as director, and there are definitely some great moments and images she catches from behind the camera. Better yet, she has gotten many interested in the story of a man who, quite simply, may be one of the most BA people out there. To have heard him tell these stories himself would have been the experience of the lifetime (think Big Fish, but in the end it turns out nothing was exaggerations based in reality), but seeing them depicted on the big screen will just have to do. At least until I buy the book.