The first word that comes to mind when describing the movie “Unbroken” is “big.” Many of the scenes span vast landscapes, and even those depicting cramped and confined prison camps still capture a sense of ceaseless repetition in settings that are just one part of a global conflict. Though the story itself takes place primarily within a period of less than five years, it still feels big. It’s as though this small portrait can speak to an entire generation in a very specific time when many soldiers on both sides of WWII were enduring terrible hardships. It’s understandable, then, that the film received an Oscar nomination for cinematography.
One of the only aspects of the film that is not big, however, is the cast. The main character, Louis Zamperini, is played by British actor Jack O’Connell, a relatively unknown actor in American cinema. In fact, the only actor I personally recognized was Finn Wittrock of “American Horror Story: Freakshow” fame. It took me a while to get over the initial shock of seeing the face I had associated with the intensely frightening Dandy on the screen, but Wittrock does a great job of playing Zamperini’s companion, Mac.
I had a problem with one of the characters, that of the evil and seemingly psychopathic Mutsuhiro Watanabe, played by novice actor and Japanese singer Takamasa Ishihara. The acting itself was incredible, and Ishihara does an amazing job making the audience despise his character.
But I had trouble believing that a single person could be entirely and almost superhumanly evil. The only humanizing moment in the film was when Zamperini finds a picture of Watanabe standing beside who we assume to be his father. And yet this brief moment fails to provide much respite from the personalized hatred that the officer has for the prisoners, and specifically for Zamperini.
Of course, the film is based on the true story of Zamperini’s life, as written by author Lauren Hillenbrand, and as such, I feel uncomfortable questioning how Zamperini remembered his traumatic experience in the POW camp. However, there is something to be said for the historic demonization of Japanese soldiers in the decades following WWII. Additionally I can’t help but think of the thousands of American citizens of Japanese heritage who were kept against their will in internment camps in some of the most remote parts of the United States.
What complicates this further is that “Unbroken[’s]” director, Angelina Jolie, has said repeatedly that the story of the film is about forgiveness. Yet, in this regard, I feel the film falls a bit short. Without giving away the ending, there is a brief clip at the movie’s close explaining that some of the Japanese officers from the camp either moved to the United States or greeted the veterans in later years and asked for forgiveness for their brutality.
Without this short flash of words upon the screen, the entire film would be primarily about one man’s struggle to continue to survive the hardships thrown his way.
Jolie does a fantastic job at capturing these challenges in a simple yet very striking way. For the entire duration that Zamperini and his comrades are stranded at sea, numbers flash in the corner of the screen chronicling the days they have spent in the middle of the ocean without food or water. In this way, the audience is hit hard by the real intensity of the situation without being hit over the head by dramatic music or a voiceover for added effect.
On that note, I was not surprised to find that the film had also been nominated Oscars for Sound Editing and Mixing. Though these may not be the most exciting or talked-about award categories, they certainly seemed to be a clear instance in which the diagetic and non-diagetic sounds worked together to create an atmosphere or mood for the audience without being too traditional to the point of being cliché.
As someone who has seen quite a few war films—with many of those taking place during World War II—I found this story to be refreshingly exceptional and incredible. Unlike some films that focus on miraculous events that did or had the potential to change the outcome of an entire war, “Unbroken” centers around a group of men, though perhaps most exclusively on one man, as a means of retelling a story of survival. Zamperini’s experience may not be one that many can relate to, but if anything, it puts into perspective our own personal hardships. Watching three men surviving on minimal rations and resorting to eating a raw fish certainly made me think twice about complaining when having to withdraw money from my savings account to pay for my weekly groceries.
Overall, the film is well-done, and though some might argue that it is limited in perspective, the story is inspiring and touching. I will neither confirm nor deny that the film’s final scene, which utilized real footage of Zamperini nearly 40 years after the war, made me tear up. The audience is left feeling grateful for what Zamperini endured and, more importantly, relief from the fact that the ordeal is over.