Body, No Soul, by Scott Nye
It’s not a spoiler to say, based on the title alone, that Louis Zamperini, the subject of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, survives his numerous ordeals throughout World War II. He’s stranded at sea for nearly two months, taken in as a prisoner of war in Japan, and forced to endure uncommonly harsh treatment at the hands of the enemy. The force driving him to put up with it all is never explained throughout the film, which is fine. Most people want to survive. The problem is that Zamperini did have such a force, one that the film avoids interacting with at all before acknowledging it during the end credits – Zamperini credited his newfound faith in God with his determination to survive. After the war, he battled severe PTSD and depression before returning to Japan to individually forgive his tormentors. The film reveals all of this in a postscript, without weaving any of it into the narrative. Jolie reduces Zamperini to nothing more than a man who happened to not be killed when several others were.
Jolie’s flat, uninvolving direction is noticeable from the start. Zamperini (played in the film by Jack O’Connell) and his fellow airmen are attacked by Japanese planes, and as he leaps about from section to section, we quickly take stock of just how many opportunities for peril exist, even when things are going relatively well. There’s a whole area of the plane in which one wrong step could send a man plummeting to his death, never mind the invitations such openings extend for enemy bullets to strike. We note this, but we never feel it. The CGI backgrounds lack imminent danger, the men moving as though relaxing in a cafe. Perhaps they’ve gotten used to it? Sure, but their confidence is never misplaced. They execute their maneuvers perfectly, with no room left for human error. Imagine the opening of Saving Private Ryan without such moments as the man marveling at the helmet that saved his life, only to be shot in the process of doing so. Jolie notices only the lucky saves, with no sense of the cosmic irony or the closeness of death.
This makes her ideally suited to the long sequence at sea, when all Zamperini and two fellow airmen (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) can do is sit stationary, hoping they’ll run across friendly transport. They pass the time by telling jokes, quizzing one another, hunting for food (after one of their party consumes the emergency rations), and imagining what they’ll do once they’re back home in America. The tension comes only rarely from anything imminent – Jolie does, to her credit, nicely tease out the presence of sharks, letting us glimpse them in the corner of frames, wondering when next they’ll appear – but the more general hopelessness of being stuck on a small raft in the middle of the ocean.
This soon ends, and Zamperini’s off to a POW camp, and things take a turn for the dreadfully dull. It’s certainly impressive, even on the pure physical level that is Jolie’s only entry point into the story, how much Zamperini endures throughout the film. Before the war, he was an Olympic runner, and the film makes rather strained attempts to tie his determination there with his will to survive here. It doesn’t quite work, the Olympic angle seemingly only presented to distinguish his story from the thousands of others that emerged from the war. But Jolie’s total disinvestment from Zamperini’s (or O’Connell’s) body doesn’t even place this in The Last Temptation of Christ territory. She shies away from anything but the most minor of physical effects the torture might have on him. His unwavering commitment and seemingly impervious skin lends him almost superheroic qualities, removing any true sense of humanity. When his main rival, Corporal Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (played by musician Miyavi), orders his fellow prisoners to punch him in the face, one by one, as the sun sets majestically behind them, it’s essentially akin to watching Batman go through some similar punishment. “That’s impressive,” you think. “And pretty badass.”
There’s nothing “badass” about surviving in these camps. They were – and continue to be – dehumanizing, horrific experiences. Jolie’s “take” is akin to those online memes showing soldiers storming the beach at Normandy with the words “Harden the Fuck Up” emblazoned across them. She isn’t interested in Zamperini’s spirit, his doubts or fears, his beliefs, or much else actually about him beyond a few personality traits, which O’Connell ably sketches. The film has no soul, nor even much of a story. It treats survival itself as an inspirational without investing in what drove it, or the method by which it was achieved. Simple “grit” and “determination” is enough. In mythologizing Zamperini, transforming his story into a heroic tale, she destroys what was truly admirable about him and thousands others – that he was only human.