The Movie ‘Unbroken’ – A Report from a Screening
The plane jostles constantly from side to side. The riveted aluminum frame creaks and rumbles. Up front, puffs of black smoke appear from nowhere, traces of exploded anti-aircraft shells. Some puffs spit flame; seeing those is not a good thing. In back, below and up top, the sharp crackle of the 50mm guns, followed by the hollow clatter of cartridges falling to the floor, gives credence to the dedicated defense of the ship. One sound, if heard, makes the stomach queasy – the cries of a crewmate who has been hit.
The above may be an adequate, bare-bones description of what it was like flying a B-24 Liberator, or any level bomber, in combat during World War II, but it doesn’t come close to matching what viewers experience in the first 10 minutes of Unbroken, the new Universal Pictures film about the life of Louis Zamperini, which will be in theaters December 25. The movie is sure to garner the interest of those familiar with the Olympic competitor turned 13th Air Force bombardier, and those who just enjoy gripping drama based on the real lives of American heroes.
The year 2014 has been in many ways a year dominated by biopics. Historical characters from biblical personalities to modern newsmakers are dominating the big screen in films such as Noah, The Theory of Everything, Selma, The Imitation Game and Unbroken. The story of Louis Zamperini, who was born into an Italian immigrant family in Torrance, California, and his transformation from juvenile rascal to long-distance runner to Japanese POW to Christian inspirational speaker is one that was bound to become compelling cinema. It was not, however, a short or easy road to bring Zamperini’s story to the screen, as producer Matthew Baer explained during a recent screening of the film to industry professionals.
“By the time the movie comes out it will be 17 years [in the making]. The footage that is in the end of the movie was part of a documentary for CBS Sports. When I saw that footage I thought, number one, what a remarkable man, what an incredible story. Number two, it was an amazing story that nobody had the rights to. And the next day after I had seen it I was able to meet Lou and convince him that I was the right person for the project to get it going again. By getting it going again I mean that in 1956 Universal had acquired Lou’s book Devil at My Heels for Tony Curtis to play Lou. So the rights were still in control in 1998.”
With the impetus begun to translate the story into cinema, the challenge became one of matching a well-known director to the project. Such are the dynamics of creating a successful film of this nature in Hollywood. None of the major directors of epic historical drama were interested in directing the story and the project was shelved again until an acclaimed historical novelist took up the torch.
“From 1998 to 2004 the project was very active at Universal,” recalls Baer. “In 2002 we found out that Laura Hillenbrand was going to write a book on Lou. What we didn’t know was that it would take Laura eight years to write Unbroken. And then, when the book came out the project started again.”
The Laura Hillenbrand book articulated the story extremely well and contained detailed research that silenced a small number of individuals who doubted Zamperini’s story. The book also opened the story to a wider audience who follow the writings of Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Baer approached Angelina Jolie, the Oscar-winning actress whose only previous feature film directorial work was the 2011 independent film In the Land of Blood and Honey (set in the 1990s war in Bosnia), which she also wrote. By the time Jolie became involved with Unbroken the screenplay had gone through many renditions (all of which Zamperini read and commented on). In a stroke of good fortune Oscar-winning brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Fargo) expressed interest in collaborating as screenwriters on the project.
“One of their sons had read the book,” says Baer, “and they were open to doing an assignment that they didn’t have to direct. They saw the scope of what they could do as writers but they had the pleasure of not having to direct.”
The Coen screenplay brought with it some insightful juxtaposing, enabling the film to effectively bring together the diverse experiences of Zamperini’s life. From this blueprint Jolie applied her vision to the film with a firm set of style concepts. Jolie and her producing partners—including Clayton Townsend who, having produced several Oliver Stone films, was adept at creating the production requirements for historical dramas—assembled a strong team of creative department heads to lead a crew of some 800 people on location in Hawaii.
In the previously mentioned opening sequence, Zamperini (played by British actor Jack O’Connell) leads a B-24 Liberator named Superman through a bombing run on a Japanese-held island target. After Zamperini—“Zam” to his crewmates—returns control of the plane to the pilot Superman is attacked by Zeros. The scene shows that Zamperini is a leader of the crew and depicts how he reacts emotionally to the true stress of aerial combat. The scene then rolls back to young Louis, a disciplinary problem in a family trying to be accepted in a community not fully open to people of Mediterranean heritage. Here and elsewhere in the film there are references to Zamperini’s evolving spiritually, a major aspect of his later life that the movie was not able to portray in its entirety.
Before too long Zamperini’s brother Pete (Alex Russell) realizes Louie’s potential to run competitive track and convinces his younger sibling to join the school team as a way to give his life direction. Louis Zamperini takes to the athletic pursuit and gains confidence and recognition as a top long-distance runner and eventually an Olympic hopeful. In a later flashback Zamperini is seen attending and competing in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin even though his sights are set on the 1940 Tokyo Games when he feels he will be a more competitive runner.
The Tokyo Games are never held; Zamperini instead becomes a navigator in the Pacific War against the Japanese. A wounded Superman crash-lands after the combat mission. Zamperini and all but one of the crew, wounded in the Zero attack, survive.
Not surprisingly the comradery among Zam and his fellow crewmen is strong. His bonds are particularly close with pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson). Zam, Phil and some of the regular crew are joined by newcomers when they are assigned to fly a bucket of bolts called Green Hornet on a search and rescue mission, seeking survivors of another B-24 that went down over the vast expanses of the Pacific.
Things go badly in the mission when Green Hornet loses three of four engines. The crew is forced to ditch the plane somewhere in the Pacific. Only three survive – Zam, Phil and a gunner named Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock). The three then hope they will be found by another search and rescue team as they endure the elements, hunger and the ever-present sharks. They also must endure the harrowing psychological effects of this situation of helplessness. Zam again becomes a leader and tries to hold onto the sanity of the group with stories of his mother’s cooking. At one point during a fierce storm Zamperini pledges his life to God if he is allowed to live.
Mac eventually dies, however Zam and Phil hang on for 47 days until “rescued” by a Japanese destroyer that happens upon their lifeboat. From there the pair are taken to Kwajalein where they begin to endure the brutal treatment doled out by their Japanese captors, who already know of Zamperini’s celebrity as an Olympian.
Convinced they are going to be executed on Kwajalein, Zam and Phil are instead shipped off to Japan, where they are separated; Zam ending up at the Omori POW detention camp outside of Tokyo. There he endures particularly harsh physical and psychological abuse from the camp’s warden, Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), called by the prisoners “The Bird.” Although the treatment of all the Allied POWs at the camp is poor, “The Bird” uses Zamperini’s celebrity as a reason to single him out, perhaps in a fit of jealousy since the camp warden’s class stature in prewar Japan caused Watanabe to believe he deserved to be an officer.
At one point Zamperini is taken to Tokyo to broadcast a message of his own words to his family over the radio. When he is then asked to read from a Japanese script he refuses, and he is sent back to Omori where “The Bird” increases his torment of the celebrity prisoner. As 1944 turns into 1945, American bombing of Tokyo prompts relocating the POWs of Omori to remote Naoetsu POW camp. There they are forced to work in slave conditions unloading coal barges. In a further test of what a man can stand, Zamperini triumphs over the further abuse of “The Bird,” who was promoted to sergeant and transferred to Naoetsu sometime before the prisoners arrived.
Once Zamperini’s POW experience ends in the film the story of his life continues, but only in brief form. Some of those familiar with his dedication to forgiveness-not-revenge as a born-again Christian may find that aspect of his life underdeveloped in the film. There is, however, a need for motion pictures to come to some sort of dramatic conclusion and the filmmakers felt the later life of Louis Zamperini would necessitate staring an entirely new story within the film. I agree with this decision and with most of the stylistic choices made by Jolie. I’m not entirely convinced that the casting of Ishihara (who is listed as Miyavi in the film, the name he uses in his primary career as an accomplished pop musician in Japan) is what the audience will perceive as appropriate for the brutal Watanabe, but it is an interesting portrayal, and it will be interesting to see how it is received.
Shot entirely in Australia with most of the post-production being done in the U. S., the film is first rate in its execution. Roger Deakins’ exquisite photography combined with excellent set design and seamless visual effects create an absorbing wartime experience. The music and sound design enhance the drama and realism. The sound effects are very appropriate and only the slightly too-synchronized engine of a Japanese two-engine bomber might be singled out for some letdown in historical accuracy.
There have been many movies made about American and other Allied POWs in World War II, nearly all of them well-made and compelling in their own right. Unbroken is in some ways similar and in many ways different than the others. It is a character study of one man, with a fair sampling of the experiences of those around him, that charts a nearly complete course of his early life, with references to how those experiences shaped his later life. It is a finely crafted film in so many ways, beginning with a solid story that is true. And it is a story that in the end is a triumph of the human spirit that has long been associated with Zamperini’s life. The accomplished cast and direction get the most out of their performances.
Louis Zamperini died on July 2, 2014. He was involved in the making of Unbroken right up to his death, reviewing script changes, watching screen tests, working closely with Jolie in what she described as a close father-daughter collaboration. In his last days Jolie showed Zamperini a version of the film, which was then in advanced post production, on her computer in his hospital room. According to producer Baer, Zamperini was quite pleased with how the film turned out. Prior to his death Zamperini was also selected as Grand Marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade. Now he will be specially honored during the parade and his family will ride the Grand Marshal’s float.
About the Author
Jay Wertz is a frequent contributor to ArmchairGeneral.com. He is the producer-director-writer of the award-winning 13-part documentary series Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War for The Learning Channel and Time-Life Video. He authored The Native American Experience and The Civil War Experience 1861-1865 and co-authored Smithsonian’s Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War with prominent historian Edwin C. Bearss. His most recent publications include the War Stories WWII series published by Weider History Publications.
For more on Unbroken go to http://www.unbrokenfilm.com