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'Unbroken' Doesn't Get Past The Boundaries Of Its Genre

courtesy Universal Pictures
A screencap from the film 'Unbroken.'

Unbroken starts on a roll. A series of terse shots show how a World War II B-24 bomber works – the famous Norden bombsight, the propellers and wing flaps, the rotating bubbles for machine gunners. Inside you meet the faces of the very young men who served in these machines.

They were kids, and the sight of it roils your gut. Then the picture heads south.

Angelina Jolie paints herself as a radical of sorts in Hollywood, but as a director, she's right in the thick of the typical. Unbroken is simply a biopic. It's story may be thrilling or inspiring, but the movie might as well be The Bridge over the River Kwai or any of the other Japanese prisoner of war camp movies. From the look of Unbroken, not much has changed in that category.

The actual story is astonishing. Louie Zamperini, played by Jack O'Connell, was the son of Italian immigrants who grew up in Torrance, California. He started running track in high school, became a champion in the mile, and ran the 5000 meters in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He finished eighth, but turned in a famously fast final lap. In 1941 he enlisted in the Army Air Force; on a mission, his plane ditched in the Pacific. Zamperini and one other boy spent 47 days in a raft before a Japanese ship picked them up. Zamperini and his friend were put in a prison camp where both were tortured until the end of the war. That's as far as the film goes. Zamperini died July 2, 2014.

Zamperini obviously had tremendous courage and persistence. Otherwise he would have died in the raft. From his account, the treatment in the prison camp was horrific, and one Japanese commander in particular, clearly a sadist, had it in for this famous athlete. But Zamperini's life and a movie about his life are not the same thing, and even with a host of noted screenwriters – Joel and Ethan Coen, and Richard LaGravenese among them – no one managed to find a film story in Zamperini's experience.

For the most part, the story of Unbroken is a one-dimensional take on "look what happened to this poor guy," and that's not enough.

The picture has no dimension beyond the chronicle of Louie Zamperini's misery. Angelina Jolie and her horde of good writers trot out all the usual evil Japanese commander clichés, all the clichés of the poor guy getting up every time he's knocked down, the clichés of thirsty, hungry guys in a raft. To express Zamperini's biography in these tired images does the story no good at all. It's still just a one-note picture of misery.

These events took place in the 1940s. It's now nearly 75 years later, but the movie shows no curiosity about what this old story means in the present. Apparently, Zamperini suffered from this trauma for decades, so maybe less on-screen misery and more post-war struggle would do the story real honor.

Unbroken also could not have come out at a worse time. The distributor of the movie probably hoped to capitalize on the Pearl Harbor anniversary and the end of year release that implies serious and artistic in the Hollywood brain. The distributor did not count on the film coming out within two weeks of the Senate report on American torture practices in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you've followed that story, it's hard to keep it out of your head while you watch the horror foisted on Zamperini.

In the current atmosphere, the torture of Zamperini loses its power. It's not exceptional; we do it too. The moral potential of the film dissipates. It's also blind of the writers not to acknowledge, for instance, what happened at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. That all became public years ago, so Unbroken feels like an ignorant relic.

It's not only out of date filmmaking, it would seem the filmmakers have their heads in the sand.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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