This is the fourth review in my series on biopic movies. I reviewed The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything which I saw last week. Though very different, those films both used the structure of a summer romance almost to a “T”. They were both films about the will of humans to become gods, intellectual gods in the cases of Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking. Women were crucial intermediaries in the film to enable ordinary humans to gain access to heroes who transcend ordinary human endeavours.
Saturday evening I saw Wild. In my blog review of Wild with Reese Witherspoon, I explained that the movie about an indomitable human will as well was, however, structured as a spring comedy rather than a summer romance. The emergence of a hero – in this case, a heroine – who revives from a long night of sinking into hell to emerge triumphant is inspiring. She is resurrected, not as a god, but as a living human being with whom we can identify. This movie had a fatal weakness in not adequately portraying the period in which the heroine succumbed to the powers of darkness.
The movie Unbroken, directed impressively by Angelina Jolie, that we saw last evening belongs to a very different third category adapted also from a book about an indomitable human will. It is an autumn elegy, however, rather than a summer romance or a spring comedy. The film is an arduous tale of descent into darkness, but begins in a gradual process of the hero becoming triumphant. The story presented is of the birth and rise of the hero from youthful “innocence”, spiced up with a degree of high spirited delinquency and insubordination. Instead of being portrayed as the “Terror of Torrance”, the town in California where he grew up, he is pictured as a pre-teen troublesome delinquent of sorts. Louie Zamperini comes across as an Italian Huck Finn, as American as can be, but born to an Italian mother and father living in California. Watching the movie, it is difficult to reconcile what you see with the fact that Louie Zamperini was already fifteen when he took up running. Though we are told by his brother that he was headed for a life of crime, I personally was never convinced about the claim. The film was never structured to make that portrait credible.
However, straying from the “true” story both at the beginning and at the end, except for condensation, is the exception. The story is told with realistic exactitude. To convey how it is done while conforming to a particular aesthetic trope, I have to describe the plot. SPOILER ALERT. If you have not seen the film, cut out now and read only the last line of this review.
Louie Zamperini grows from a young high-spirited boy into a small town hero in spite of the prejudice in the California town against Italians. He does this because he is an extremely fast runner. His career as a runner really takes off when, in his junior year in high school when he competed in the national interscholastic athletic games, he ran the mile in 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds, then a record that stood for almost two decades. Thus began the third phase of his rise to become an Olympic gold medal winner. He was instantly placed on the 1936 Olympic team where he came from behind to win the 5,000 metre XI Olympiad in Munich, Germany, running the last lap in a record time of 56 seconds, a record I believe that has never been surpassed. At the time, Louie was only overshadowed by Jesse Owens, the Black American athlete who captured four gold medals. But those three phases of the movie only took the first 15-20 minutes of the film.
The descent into hell then begins, first in a B-24 Liberator on which Louie was a bombardier. A B-24 was the same plane that Jimmy Stewart flew in WWII in the European theatre. The portrait of the plane itself with its .50 caliber machine guns sticking out of its tail, both its sides, the nose and the top of the airplane is alone worth the price of admission to the movie. The plane is literally shot to hell by Japanese fighters as it flies through flak alley. It manages to return to base full of bullet, anti-aircraft and shrapnel holes and has to crash land because the plane has lost its braking system. The scenes are all harrowing, but they are only appetizers for what is yet to come.
In what I thought was the same resurrected plane, but evidently was not, the derelict they do fly fails. One engine failed on the left side, but the flight was doomed only when the engineer accidentally killed the other engine on the left side. Because of the chaos and terror inspired by the condition of the flight, I cannot tell you for sure how this incident was portrayed. In any case, the crash was NOT due to any error by Louie, a fact “true to life,” but deficient in terms of an autumn elegy. I would have made a change here rather than at the beginning or end of the film for aesthetic reasons. For narrative purposes, though certainly not for historical verity, it would have been helpful to suggest that the crash might have been the result of the bombardier’s error.
The crew crashes into the sea. There is little emphasis on the long flights the B-24 crews had to fly from Hawaii to bomb Wake Island captured by the Japanese, except by Louis describing the ocean as large. It is an understatement. Further, instead of the normal trope in which the fall is in some part due to a failing of our hero – after all, many if not most planes in the Pacific theatre were lost because of pilot or navigator errors – the implicit implication projected is that a superior officer sent the crew aloft in a faulty aircraft, not at all uncommon in WWII. Serving on a B-24 Liberator was considered to be a sentence to flying in a coffin.
Except for three of them, the other crew members all died in the crash. Louie survives even though for a period he was trapped as the planes fuselage sunk by what I believe was a strap, but the sequence was unclear. The scene of his swimming tens of feet upwards to the surface is visually beautiful as well as allowing the viewer as well as Louie to breathe once he reaches the surface. The three survivors locate two rafts and climb aboard, but the search aircraft flying overhead fails to spot them.
In the next period of his trial, now at sea rather than in the heavens, the three survivors of the aircraft lie in their raft in the blistering sun. They drift for days and lack food and water after their initial rations are gone, relieved periodically by a caught fish and some captured rainfall. The bait for catching the fish is an albatross they grabbed that had used their craft as a resting place. They kill and eat the albatross only to end up sick and vomiting over the sides of the raft. They do use the remainder as bait to catch fish. They are then threatened by different kinds of sharks that circle their raft, but they manage to capture one and it provides an important source of food. As they lie burnt and blistered from the sun, at one point, their rafts are shot up by a Japanese fighter plane who strafes the inflated dinghies so they are forced to dive overboard and swim among the sharks. There is even a violent storm at sea. So we progress rapidly from one terrifying scene to the next, one trial to the next, all guaranteed to give the viewer nightmares for nights to come. One of the airmen does not survive, the one who initially stole extra rations for himself. The remaining two Americans give him a burial at sea. Louie is one of the two.
Our hero contrasts with the two others, one who succumbs to temptation and eats the rations and is the first to die, and the second, the pilot of the aircraft, who is injured but survives with the help of our hero. Will the hero survive the forces of nature? We know he will. The only interest is how and the tension produced at each challenge. But far worse is about to come. In retrospect, the ordeal of surviving at sea begins to appear as a picnic compared to the suffering they would endure as prisoners of war. How the actors became so thin with their ribs showing had to be the result of a combination of self-sacrifice for their art on their part and camera tricks. However, in spite of this obvious effort, Louie never appeared bone-thin or skeletal enough for me.
After 47 days at sea, the two survivors are finally found and rescued. But it is by a Japanese naval vessel. The third phase of the fall into hell takes place first in a prisoner-of-war camp for allied soldiers near Tokyo. This is purgatory. However, before they arrive there, they are thrown into pits the size of a dog kennel and apparently only given some mush to eat. It is difficult to know how long they were confined to those small spaces, but if the viewer is at all claustrophobic, they should close their eyes during this scene. The trip to purgatory makes purgatory itself seem in part as a relief.
However, what makes purgatory worse is not the dreadful conditions of their captivity. The camp is certainly totally inhumane, unprotected by the laws of war and unrelieved by Red Cross supervision and parcels and letters from home. The prisoners seem not to be able to wash, take showers or obtain a change of clothes. One has to imagine the stench. However, even worse than these conditions is the commander of the camp, “Bird” as he is dubbed, a real person (Mutsuhiro Watanabe) but merely an exemplification of the different interrogators and guards Louie had to endure.
This camp commander conforms perfectly to the stereotype of a prisoner-of-war Japanese “officer” – in fact, the story makes clear that he was never recognized as an officer commander. He is cruel, sadistic, insecure but determined through the use of force to exact respect. He zeroes in on Louie, especially when he learns that Louie was an Olympic gold medallist. We watch and believe we are now really viewing the living hell Louie had to endure, but the situation becomes even worse. There is an interruption in the suffering as Louie is transferred to Tokyo in the hopes that his Japanese captors could induce him to become a radio propagandist for the Japanese. They fail. Louie as a true hero refuses to trade his filthy camp enslavement for good food and housing in exchange for becoming a Japanese propagandist. This merely sets up the contrasting aftermath of the final descent into real hell itself.
The worst scene in purgatory takes place when the officers in the camp are forced to line up and punch Louie in the face. This was, in fact, a ritual ordered by Bird, but in actuality non-coms were forced to punch allied officers in the face. Though dubbed “a true story” and conforming mostly to the real story, the script writers and director did take some liberties. I applaud the liberty taken here but believe they should have taken more.
The prisoners have to wait for a period until they are moved to even worse conditions as slave labourers for the Japanese. The commander had been transferred first. The prisoners had some hope of relief. However, they are subsequently transferred over the mountains to a place we know not where in a descent into hell where the captives are forced to be mules for carrying coal to load on waiting carriers. Even worse, it is Bird who is in charge. The descent into hell is even deeper than we could imagine and that is without Angelina Jolie choosing to depict the camp overrun with legions of vermin and bugs. I am not sure the viewer could have stomached that.
The third phase of purgatory and the fourth phase of hell take up the bulk of the film. If you think being shot up in a flying fortress is the height of terror, if you think being lost at sea on a life raft for seven weeks surrounded by sharks is a horrific experience, the viewer does not know what purgatory and hell really are until we watch our hero being beaten by a Japanese commander determined to break his spirit. As we watch the demonic ritual of torture and punishment grow worse with the passing of time, even though we believe surely nothing can be worse than this, our fears, our pains, our resentment and our anger grow with these shifts.
The war is clearly almost over. With the announcement of the end, the prisoners are marched to the river and told they could finally bathe. One suspects a trick and that they are being marched towards their slaughter, for rumours abounded that the Japanese would have to kill them all to keep their inhumane treatment a secret and prevent the prosecution of the Japanese officers as war criminals. I myself expected to see the film end with a mushroom cloud where the film shows how the Japanese also suffered from hell. Instead, after the war ends, the prisoners simply march through a bombed out city with unkempt Japanese in a terrible state collecting the dead and searching for food.
The film could have gone on to depict the worst hell of all, Louie’s triumphant return and then descent into the pains of a post traumatic stress disorder. Instead, we viewers presumably had enough. Besides, such a view might spoil the vision of ultimate evil set off against the will and endurance of good and valiant Americans. For me, the ending was a let down just as the reference to the past was in the movie, Wild. If Jolie had been half as brave as she seems in real life or even a quarter as brave as Louie Zamperini seemed to be, a much stronger and more aesthetically honest ending might have turned the film into a classic.
A great film of its genre, but one that falls short in the end!