As has been well documented, at least by the non-Japanese press, Angelina Jolie’s epic Hollywood retelling of the life of Olympic runner Louie Zamperini was not picked up by the usual Japanese distributor for Universal Studios product due to fears that right wing elements would make a stink about the film’s purported “anti-Japanese” slant. If the negative light this story shed on the Japanese movie industry was dimmed somewhat, it probably had more to do with the fact that foreign critics, not to mention American audiences, were cool about the movie. To a certain extent, the publicity stems from Jolie’s celebrity status and its somewhat paradoxical relationship with her intentions as a director. Her first film, after all, was set during the Bosnian conflict and featured unknown actors speaking in languages other than English. Unbroken isn’t quite as pure-of-purpose. It’s very much a big budget production, and while there are no famous faces on the screen, it has the melodramatic heft of a Tinseltown biopic. In that regard, and given Jolie’s popularity in Japan, it could have been a moderate money maker here, though I’m not sure if that explains why a distributor normally associated with European and Japanese art films took the risk of releasing it.
First things first. It’s obvious that the people who object to Unbroken on grounds that it is reflexively anti-Japanese have not seen it, and probably don’t intend to. Though the treatment of Allied prisoners by the Japanese during the Pacific War as depicted in the film can definitely be characterized as cruel and certainly in violation of the Geneva Convention, the cruelty isn’t consistent or particularly brutal compared to other movies of this ilk. One could even make a case that the cruelty on display in The Bridge on the River Kwai and even Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which was a Japanese production, was worse. I saw no cannibalism, one of the charges brought against Unbroken, and the only character who seemed sadistic was the dour Corporal Watanabe (Miyavi), whose actions were obviously motivated by some deep psychological problem and had nothing to do with his nationality, even if those actions were tolerated by his fellow Japanese soldiers. Moreover, Jolie is careful to show that Japan suffered disproportionately. At one point, the Allied POWs are being moved from a camp near Tokyo to another camp, and they walk through an urban landscape that was recently firebombed by the Americans. Dozens of dead civilians line the road. Moreover (spoiler alert), when the war is over, the prisoners are simply set free. If anything, I would say that the Japanese are depicted as being relatively fair-minded considering the hardships that everyone was going through on the main islands and the kind of treatment they’ve suffered in previous films of this type.
That said, the movie stands or falls on the way it charts Zamperini’s life. As the child of Italian immigrants in pre-war California, young Louie is subjected to bullying, for which he compensates by becoming one of the fastest high school runners in the state. His appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics would seem to have completed his journey of self-realization, but then he went to war and his mettle was really tested. Jolie gets the most, visually at least, out of Zamperini’s trial by water after his plane is downed over the Pacific and he and his fellow bombers spend 47 days on the open sea fighting off sharks and catching fish. The visceral impact of this passage, especially the crashing of the plane in the water, overwhelms much of what came before, and nothing that comes after, regardless of how dramatically it’s presented, holds up to it, either. It’s as if Jolie spent everything she had on it.
Zamperini’s resourcefulness is matched only by his stubbornness, which explains how he can survive the horrors of the Japanese POW camp while being somehow singled out by Watanabe as the focus of his sadomasochistic rage. The British actor, Jack O’Connell, who has already proven his amazing range in movies like ’71 and Starred Up, is perhaps too subtle a performer to make the impression Jolie aims for in a movie that goes for spectacle the way this one does. Zamperini’s capabilities drive home the meaning of the title, but it comes across as something almost super human rather than a triumph of the spirit. In the best sense, O’Connell’s Zamperini doesn’t step out of himself to make a big deal of his survival, though in a few tense moments he lets his guard down to show his true vulnerability. Sad to say, but I can’t imagine an American actor having the presence of mind to understand how important that is to the film’s credibility, and props to Jolie for making this about the strength of one man rather than a victory for American manhood. You just wish you had a better understanding of the man himself.
Opens Feb. 6 in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum, Aoyama (03-5766-0114).
Unbroken home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2014 Universal Studios