- Unbroken dir. by Angelina Jolie
The hero of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is Louis Zamperini (1917–2014). His life story, penned by Laura Hillenbrand, is a global best seller. In both the book and the film, Zamperini emerges as an extraordinary individual befitting the subtitle of Hillenbrand’s volume: “A Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” He was a rascal and a rebel who became a noted track runner and, in adulthood, an unbreakable soldier and survivor.
Zamperini was born in Olean, New York to Italian immigrants. He had an older brother Pete and two younger sisters. The family moved to Torrance, California in 1919, where he attended Torrance High School. He spoke English badly and was bullied because of it. His father taught him to box, and, as a result, Zamperini learned to survive through feistiness.
His brother got him involved in track-and-field athletics at Torrance High School beginning in 1932. He was undefeated in his three years of high school competition. The highpoint was in 1934 when Zamperini set a world interscholastic record for the mile at 4:21.2. As a result, he received an athletic scholarship to attend the University of Southern California starting in 1936.
With 1936 being an Olympic year, Zamperini seized the opportunity to compete for the United States. He opted to “try out” for the five thousand meters rather than the fifteen hundred meters, which seemed too full of talented runners, including Glenn Cunningham, who went on to win a silver medal at Berlin. In the Olympic trials, Zamperini launched his trademark last lap dash to the finish line and managed a dead-heat tie. He was selected for the United States team and, at nineteen, was the youngest member of the track and field contingent. He finished in eighth place, but a final lap of fifty-six seconds prompted Adolf Hitler to praise him as “the boy with the fast finish” after the race.
Zamperini’s crowning glory was setting a national collegiate mile record of 4:08 that had sports writers speculating that the “Torrance Tornado” might be the first runner to break the four-minute barrier.
In September 1941, Zamperini joined the United States Army Air Force as a second lieutenant. He flew on B-24 Liberators, and on May 27, 1943, his “Green Hornet” crashed into the Pacific Ocean, killing eight of the eleven-man crew. Zamperini, pilot Russell “Phil” Phillips, and crewman Francis “Mac” McNamara survived by clambering into two rafts and consuming rainwater, assorted raw fish, and an occasional bird. McNamara died after thirty-three days. Zamperini and Phillips suffered for forty-seven days before being picked up by the Japanese. In large part because of his modest fame, Zamperini faced all manner of prison-camp torture and deprivation, especially from his sadistic Japanese overseer, Mutsuhire Watanabe, before finally being released in August 1945.
Jolie essentially takes these three acts/chapters as the major grist for her version of Zamperini’s life. A major problem for Jolie and her four screenplay authors (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson) is that Laura Hillenbrand’s [End Page 217] narrative is dense and intense. Despite a two-hour, seventeen-minute running time, the film leaves one feeling that the writing team was unable to duplicate the gravitas, depth, and detail of Hillenbrand’s epic tale. The horrors of the prison camps, for instance, seem underexploited. Jolie was eager to get a PG-13 rating for the film to make it appropriate for family viewing during the holiday season when it was released. However, Unbroken gives an unflinching and savage depiction of the Bushido creed of the Japanese that classed prisoners as disgraced warriors better dead than alive. World War II estimates point to 40 percent of 28,000 U.S. prisoners of war dying in Japanese camps.
Unbroken, though, is a film of promise, and Jolie’s direction reveals unusual flourishes. Her major leap of faith was to pick a relatively unknown British actor, twenty-four-year-old Jack O’Connell, to play Zamperini. O’Connell is at...