The following contains spoilers for Unbroken. You have been warned.
We liked Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. There were a lot of things it did well.
There were also quite a few places we though it might have done better. Rachel Lutack and I got together to talk about some of them.
Tim: So let’s start with a baseline. I’ve already put my broad thoughts on Unbroken out there. What was your reaction?
Rachel: In general, I pretty much agreed with your review. I would just go even further in certain aspects where I felt that there was a lot undeveloped and unfulfilled.
Tim: I’ve heard a lot of criticism in that regard levied by people who came to this movie after reading the book Unbroken, which I have not. My understanding is that the book goes into Zamperini’s post-camp life in far greater depth. The movie hits the PTSD, forgiveness tour, etc. with some nice text, but it did feel a bit underwhelming. Are you looking there, too, or were there things earlier on that jumped out?
Rachel: I did not read the book either, but have spoken with people who have and got the same reaction. For me, I went into the movie wanting and expecting to love it. The areas in which it was underwhelming were with certain side characters. I am not sure how much of role other particular POWs played in Louis Zamperini’s real life story, but there were suggestions of a deeper connection that just weren’t seen through. I also would have liked to see more in terms of the forgiveness tour and his conversion, although I understand why it was maybe left out.
Tim: In terms of side characters getting shorted, Garrett Hedlund’s Fitzgerald might be the best example. This is going to sound wildly inappropriate, but it felt like I was dropped (along with Louis) into some Twilight Zone version of Hogan’s Heroes, what with the map-tracing and sabotage-planning. It actually seemed kind of goofy. But on the other hand, it did seem very believable to me. So I’m caught in a bit of a paradox. Back to the point, though, through the first half of the film you have Domhnall Gleeson’s Phil keeping Louis company on screen, and I kept expecting Fitzgerald to step into that role more than he ever managed to.
Rachel: I was going to say, I would leave Phil out of my complaint about side characters. Gleeson might be the one to credit for that with his performance, though, which I thought was exceptional and attention-grabbing. I understand why you would want to see more from that, and I was looking toward Hedlund’s character to pick up the slack as well. I didn’t really see it in a comedic way before, but I definitely do now. His role was often reduced to an over-the-top look across the room or yard. Which might not have been Hedlund’s fault, either.
Tim: Yeah, Gleeson was great. But you kind of expect that from him. Not to digress too far, but I was incredibly amused that two American POWs were being portrayed by two British actors. And with regard to Hedlund’s “look[s] across the room or yard],” I do wonder how much of that was on him versus how much can be attributed to the direction. I think Angelina Jolie did a pretty good job here, but I think the gradual wearing down of Louis was one of the weaker parts. And not in any particular scene; watching him get beaten is incredibly powerful, but I do wish that part of the movie would have chained together better. The choice directorially has to be between drawing even closer to Zamperini to understand his pain, or to pull away from him to appreciate his isolation. Unbroken spends a bit too much time trying to do both, I think.
Rachel: I completely agree. His wearing down, from the first half of the film in the lifeboat to the POW camps, all felt like watching chapters in a book. One scene began and ended so succinctly so that his struggle didn’t seem to carry from one scene to the next for me, and it made me a bit too aware of time passing as well as the isolation of each incident.
Tim: To be fair, I think I was just more interested in the survival at sea. I liked watching Louis and the others go fishing (and TACKLE A SHARK!!!) It’s a weird slow burn that was more appealing than the immediacy of the POW camp. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the ocean will most likely kill you slowly, whereas in a POW camp, there are bullets everywhere ready to take your life in an instant. I prefer the long fight to the unpredictability. It also means a very unique structure for Unbroken, as it really becomes almost two different films. And here, too, I think if somehow Louis’s later life could have been included, kind of like his early life as a boy and as an Olympian was, there might be more of a sense of unity across the entire picture.
Rachel: I can agree with that, I definitely think of the film as two halves in my mind, and was also more interested by the ocean survival. I felt as though the screenwriters or Jolie attempted to blend the two together in different ways, for example his prayer to God in the boat transitioning to the scene later on when he is forced to hold the plank as a sort of Christ figure. I doubt that these two scenes were specifically meant to tie together the two halves directly, but the small hints of his eventual conversion seem to make its way in there in those scenes, but again, are left underdeveloped and are seemingly “fulfilled” by the text at the end.
Tim: Hmmm. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to see the Christ-figure metaphor completed. If that scene where he’s forced to hold the plank is his crucifixion, the PTSD and substance abuse he encountered after returning home have to be thought of as part of his passion play. They’re his death, his removal of himself from the world. Then the forgiveness is his resurrection. Although I don’t know where that puts the plane crash….
Rachel: What an amazing film that would be. It’s difficult to judge a real life story and its telling, which is why I thought the areas where I really enjoyed the film were in Zamperini’s incredible story and the actors who brought these characters to life, and less so in its packaging.
Tim: We talked some about Domhnall Gleeson already, but what did you think of Jack O’Connoll? This was my first exposure to him outside of hearing others rave about his performance in Starred Up. He’s not rave-worthy here, but he does do a great job of conveying Zamperini’s pain and determination.
Rachel: I have actually been an O’Connell fan for years, since he was pretty much a teenager on Skins. I was impressed with how much restraint he was able to convey. He has played a lot of rebellious and wild characters in the past (and from what I hear, he was, or is, much like that in real life), so I was pleasantly surprised by his performance. I also wasn’t completely blown away, but I was impressed nonetheless.
Tim: That’s most of the main characters we’ve talked about now, but we’re leaving out one incredibly important one: The Bird.
Rachel: Right, well I kind of have a strong opinion that he was miscast. I understand that Zamperini and “The Bird” were of similar ages, so I understand their casting a young up-and-coming actor in the role. However, I felt an immaturity behind his eyes. In terms of acting, most of the time I thought he did a fine job, other times I was not so sure – specifically the moment he breaks down and cries. I was also a bit put off and distracted by his “pretty” face.
Tim: In terms of the “immaturity,” do you mean in the actor or in the character? Because if Takamasa Ishihara looks immature in the role, that could be a problem, but I think it’s absolutely important to the character of The Bird, at least as he’s presented here, that he is immature. He’s said to be the son of some important guy, that’s why he’s been made an officer in the first place. He didn’t earn his place.
Rachel: I did mean an immaturity in Ishihara. It may be my own personal issue with the look of the actor. I looked up pictures of the real Bird and he looked a lot more intimidating than the actor portraying him did, and older as well.
Tim: I wonder if that was a conscious choice. Everyone who’s featured in Unbroken is young. World War II was fought by young men. Most war movies seem to pitch their cast a little older, maybe early to mid-30s, but Unbroken seemed to be very intentional about showing how the war wasn’t only damaging individuals, it was affecting an entire generation still mostly at the beginning of their lives. I do think Louis’s continued focus on the Olympics that never were for him fits nicely with that idea.
Rachel: I definitely think it was a conscious choice, and I see the parallels as well to the story of a generation (according to Tom Brokaw the greatest generation that ever lived). I see it in The Bird character specifically toward the end when Zamperini goes into his quarters and sees the picture of The Bird and what we are meant to believe, his harsh father, making a connection between the two characters (albeit in maybe a too obvious way) and the generation as a whole.
Tim: I don’t want to harp on this too much because we’ve talked about it quite a bit already, but I do wish we’d had some greater element of Zamperini’s return to Japan to meet with his former captors. That’s such an incredible story in it’s own right, but also because The Bird refused to meet with him.
Rachel: Right, I agree, and it just augments my initial comment about it being under-fulfilled. I thought the story told in the film was great for what it was, but I did walk away feeling a little jipped, both in terms of story that wasn’t told and in terms of carrying certain characters/plot points/themes out further.