Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Unbroken (2014)

I finally was able to see the film Unbroken, a powerful, utterly traumatic but empowering film about American and British soldiers suffering extreme hardship with courage and fortitude. I must say that it was heartening to see real men who behave with honor and dignity under the most trying of circumstances - very encouraging especially in this time when we have men who have a hissy fit if we do not celebrate their rainbow flag. Angelina Zolie is a surprisingly great director for such a patriotic piece. Poor Mr. Zamberini must have had brain trauma after being hit in the head so many times. But what a great man. From The Hollywood Reporter:
The brilliantly staged crippled landing of the initial bombing expedition spookily foreshadows a second flight, a search for lost fliers in a patched together plane that, in a harrowing scene, makes a crash landing and breaks up in the middle of the Pacific. The only survivors are Louie, his blond pilot buddy Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and a new crewman they don't really know, Mac (Finn Wittrock), who array themselves on two yellow life rafts and hope for the best.

The least one can say is that their experience is rather more mundane than, but perhaps equally perilous to, that of the solitary lad lost at sea in Life of Pi. As the merciless sun bears down, the men become crispy red and try to keep talking to maintain their alertness. Sickened by raw gull meat, they are sometimes lucky enough to grab the odd sea creature, prompting Phil to observe that the Japanese eat their fish raw. Sharks swim menacingly around the rafts, and what the men hope is a friendly plane passes by, only to reveal itself as Japanese when it strafes them. Mac expires, but Louie and Phil manage to last 47 days before being picked up by a Japanese warship.

As realistically as the men's deprivations are depicted in the film, the half-hour the film spends at sea simply can't render the sheer, slow agony the book so effectively conveys —the doubts, struggles, delirium, mood swings, surpassing hunger and thirst, and constant sense of peril; surprisingly, the narrative goes a little slack during this central stretch. Still, despite the apparent hopelessness of their situation, Louie's survivor's spirit emerges unmistakably here, a tenacious bond with life he won't easily relinquish. Phil has religion to get him through, Louie merely the memory of his brother's corny slogan, "A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory."

More than one moment of pain awaits him, unfortunately, at his next destination, a jungle hellhole where he and Phil are stashed in separate cells barely big enough to contain them. Unlike Hillenbrand's book, the film is unable to convey the staggering misery they were forced to endure in the form of dysentery and other diseases, infinitesimal rations, enforced silence and perpetual fear. The only sort of punishment Jolie seems confident to present cinematically is of the corporal persuasion, which is what Louie encounters repeatedly at the hands of new camp commandant Wantanabe (Miyavi), nicknamed "The Bird," a malicious sadist who zeroes in on the athletic American from the outset and never lets up, striking him repeatedly with his wooden stick, forcing fellow inmates to hit him in the face and otherwise abusing him for reasons both recreational and deeply twisted.

The large cell block in the new camp allows its inmates to talk, share rumors and otherwise fraternize in a way that takes a lot of the edge off despite their jeopardy. Nothing we see conveys the grave threat the men were constantly under (more than a third of all Allied POWs under the Japanese died in detention, compared to only one per cent under the Germans), and the tension is further alleviated by an interesting but comparatively relaxed interlude in which Louie is urged to broadcast on the radio, which at least serves the purpose of letting America and his family know that he's still alive.

Transferred to yet another camp, Louie is pushed to the virtual breaking point, leading to a climactic scene which, the way Jolie stages it, throws off unmistakable crucifixion reverberations. These don't seem specifically warranted by any other internal dramatic factors even if they do, in fact, relate to the religious conversion Louie underwent postwar, but are detailed in the book but are only mentioned onscreen in a passing end title.

One other great moment from the book that, oddly, doesn't turn up onscreen is the American prisoners noticing a spectacular sight in the far distance, which turns out to be one of the atomic bomb explosions that soon brought the war to an end. It's hard to imagine this wouldn't have made for an arresting, even surreal visual interlude.

What Jolie succeeds in doing to a substantial degree is representing her hero's physical ordeal and his tenacious refusal to give up when it would have been very easy to do so. What she and her more than estimable quarter of screenwriters — Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson — have not entirely pulled off is dramatizing the full range of Louie's internal suffering, emotional responses and survival mechanisms. Nor have they made any of the secondary characters pop from the anonymous background of prisoner extras. In the great old studio days of the 1930s, writers, directors and and actors knew how to give supporting roles real character and sharp identities within a few seconds; such is emphatically not the case here.

Just recently recognized outside the U.K. due to his work in Starred Up and 300: Rise of An Empire, O'Connell is a pleasure to watch at all times here. He has energy, seems watchful and resourceful by instinct, is open to others and, crucially, seems like a man who, even when he doesn't necessarily win, will nonetheless prevail. Always able to roll with the punches, physical and otherwise, he looks and sometimes behaves like a lively terrier.

The flashy role of the dreaded Bird is charismatically filled by Japanese singer Miyavi. Jolie could have done a bit more to build up the character's mythology and the sense of dread he imparts. But the young actor, working mostly in English, has a beauty and good sense of timing that serve him well in this malevolent part. (Read more.)
It soon becomes evident that the most pathetic person in the film is the sadistic commandant, a cowardly weakling who needs to see the sufferings of others in order to feel strong. His fury at seeing Louie holding a heavy post, like Christ on the cross, is a vision of the devil enraged. Louie's torment hearkens back to the crucifix in his parish church where as small boy he sat distracted. But suddenly, amid his agony, he is one with his Savior.

Here is an interview with the real Louie Zamperini. Share


MadMonarchist said...

Quite a few people in Japan were upset when this movie came out, calling for it to be banned or boycotted and insisting that it was nothing but lies from start to finish. The problem is, the villainous Japanese guard was found long after the war and interviewed on camera. He admitted what he did and that he did it entirely on his own initiative for his own satisfaction. Perhaps that didn't make the local news.

If I may, am I mistaken in thinking that you or your family was in or has some ties to the Philippines in World War II? If not, excuse my faulty memory, if so, I would be very interested in knowing what the experience was, whether in a future post or to be directed to one already written. I have had a hard time shifting through the conflicting versions of The Philippines under Japanese occupation.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, MM, you are right in remembering about my family's experiences in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation. My grandfather, an American citizen, was kept in Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila for four years. He was almost beaten to death for stealing some fruit because the starvation rations could barely keep him going.The film reminded me of his stories. The Japanese would throw Filipino children out of windows and catch them on bayonets. The close friends of my family, the Quezon family, whose father was later president of the PI, were horrendously murdered, the wife and daughters all raped by the Japanese. They would also take away little boys to work in the factories. My uncle was almost taken away but a woman hid him in her house and so he was saved. Many many civilians were bayoneted to death before the US invasion, people my grandparents knew.

MadMonarchist said...

Perhaps you can give a perspective then; I have heard from numerous Japanese people that the Filipinos viewed the Japanese as liberators, that they loved Japan then and still do now in appreciation for that. Obviously, that cannot be taken at face-value. However, I don't have direct contact with the country anymore and I have heard something similar from Filipinos (younger people) though it was more along the lines of 'the Japanese were no worse than the Americans'. I cannot help but wonder if this is not more a result of current anti-American opinion coloring their view of the past. Yet, there is some evidence in support of that. Did your family ever relate anything about how the Filipinos viewed the Japanese vis-à-vis the US or toward those Filipinos who collaborated? (Please forgive if I am being too demanded but everyone I would normally have trusted on this subject has moved away or passed away).

elena maria vidal said...

My grandmother was a citizen of the Philippines and I can tell you that the Filipinos absolutely did not regard the Japanese as liberators. The Filipinos were experiencing economic prosperity under American governance. General MacArthur's father had been in charge for years and many major American businesses had set up shop there, providing jobs. Many modern inconveniences had been introduced. Many public works made for more sanitary living plus the roads were improved. When the Japanese invaded and the Americans retreated, everyone was horrified and very frightened.

MadMonarchist said...

Thanks for the info, I am very glad to hear that from a reliable source. I plan on delving more into this issue this month. One point that stood out to me involved the prison for American civilians (perhaps the one you mentioned) at a university in Manila. That was common and the starvation conditions could be blamed on the U.S. blockade, however, a significant point for me was the order forbidding Filipinos passing food to the Americans in the camp. That can only be described as vindictive cruelty and points to local sympathy for the Americans -even if it wasn't support for American rule but basic Christian compassion. The couple who started the private school I attended also operated an orphanage in the Philippines, sadly they are gone now. I get the impression that younger generations tend to have forgotten much of what went on during the war.

elena maria vidal said...

Whatever the rule was, I happen to know that my grandmother regularly cooked meals for my grandfather while he was in the camp at the University, and sent it to him via their houseboy, who would pass the food to him through an opening in the wall. Once my grandmother got hold of a chicken and fattened it up then roasted it and sent the whole chicken to my grandfather, who was happy to have it. He would have died of starvation otherwise.

Madeleine Doak said...

Have you read the book Defiant by Alvin Townley? It's the incredible and well-written story of the eleven Vietnam POWs who were isolated in a special prison called Alcatraz. (My dad, Jeremiah Denton, was one of them...) They exemplified many of the values that I see reflected in your work and I think you'd like the book.

elena maria vidal said...

I was actually thinking of your Dad when I was watching the film, Madeleine. No, I have not read that particular book but I would love to get a copy of it. Thank you for reminding me.