Unbroken

Directed by: Angelina Jolie
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson
Cast: Garrett Hedlund
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Editing: Tim Squyres
Release Date: December 25, 2014
Studio: Universal

From the New York Times review:

Zamperini grew up in Torrance, Calif., and thanks partly to a bout of juvenile delinquency — he became adept at breaking into homes, then fleeing the police — he developed into a world-class runner. He ran the 5,000 meters at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (even Hitler commented on him) and later, at the University of Southern California, flirted with a four-minute mile. His coach said the only runner who could beat him was — you guessed it — Seabiscuit. As war approached he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Stationed in Hawaii, he was the bombardier on a rickety B-24 called the Green Hornet when it went down over the Pacific while searching for a missing plane. Of the 11 men on board, only three — Zamperini; the pilot, Russell Allen Phillips; and the tail gunner, Francis McNamara — survived, clinging to a canvas-and-rubber raft left amid the wreckage.

Quickly facing starvation, the men saved themselves by eating unwary albatrosses that used the raft as a perch and, with Zamperini tying improvised hooks to his hands to create a claw, by catching an occasional fish. They cut up fabric from a second raft to protect themselves from the scorching equatorial sun. Storms slaked their desperate thirst. Throughout, sharks floated expectantly alongside and beneath them, rubbing their backs against the raft and, sometimes, lunging up into it. The men beat them off with oars and even managed to kill a couple — and eat their livers.

On their 33rd day at sea McNamara died. Others in similar straits had resorted to cannibalism; after Zamperini uttered some lines remembered from the movies, he and Phillips simply cast McNamara overboard. The two men passed the days, and maintained their sanity, by peppering each other with questions, cooking imaginary meals, singing “White Christmas.” On the 46th day they spotted land: the Marshall Islands. On the 47th they were picked up by Japanese sailors.

While only one in 100 Americans captured in Europe died, nearly one in three perished in Japanese captivity. But like John McCain a generation later, Zamperini had a special status: as a former Olympian, he was a valuable propaganda tool, too precious to kill. But his celebrity also made him very tempting to torture. First in the Pacific and later in Japan, he was subjected to an unrelenting regime of assaults: humiliation, starvation, medical experiments, slave labor and disease. A succession of sadistic guards topped by a psychopathic sadist named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a k a the Bird, derived a special, almost orgiastic pleasure from beating him.

Looking skyward — where American bombers could be spotted with increasing frequency — the G.I.’s knew the war would soon end. But that was a mixed blessing: the Japanese had repeatedly vowed to kill all P.O.W.’s rather than hand them over, and surely would have if the Americans had invaded Japan. Zamperini and his fellow prisoners were effectively saved by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Like many soldiers stateside, Zamperini had a difficult re-entry, troubled by alcoholism, flashbacks, nightmares and rage. But in the fall of 1949, he was converted to Christ by Billy Graham and, as Hillenbrand relates it, all his troubles instantaneously evaporated. Only then did his war end.

Zamperini joked to Hillenbrand that he’d be an easier subject for her than Seabiscuit because he could talk. But that also presents perils. Though his wartime experiences faded with time, talking about them was pretty much all Zamperini did for years. From more than a thousand retellings, in newspaper and radio interviews and in inspirational speeches — “This Is Your Life” even devoted an episode to him — his story had been sanded down, and while Hillenbrand ably assembles its component parts, she rarely gets beneath the surface. That Zamperini does not seem especially introspective and may have forgotten or repressed certain memories only compounds the problem.

On a number of small but dubious points she gives him a pass: Could a neighbor really have sewn back on a toe Zamperini severed during a childhood accident? Would a family so poor that it shot rabbits to feed the children also have owned a car? More seriously, she rarely forces him to reach. “Unbroken” offered her an unusual chance to study and dissect a man who had undergone extreme duress. But virtually everything about Zamperini is filtered through her capable yet rather denatured voice, and we don’t really hear him. So, while a startling narrative and an inspirational book of a rather traditional sort, “Unbroken” is also a wasted opportunity to break new psychological ground.

How could someone with such access — she interviewed Zamperini 75 times — fall short in this fashion? Hillenbrand may have gotten too close to Zamperini. Writing, even about heroes, must to some degree be an adversarial process.

At the same time, paradoxically, she may not have gotten close enough. As she acknowledges, because of illness (she suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome) Hillen­brand is largely confined to her home. Judging from her citations, she spoke to Zamperini almost entirely by phone, and as any reporter will tell you, it just ain’t the same. That said, to have written something so ambitious and powerful under such trying circumstances is an act of courage even a Louis Zamperini would admire.

David Margolick’s latest book, “Elizabeth and Hazel,” about a famous photograph from the Little Rock crisis of 1957, will be published next year.