Thursday, December 4, 2014

Mind the gap: Unbroken and the gulf between intent and execution

Director Angelina Jolie (second from left), Jack O'Connell (center), Miyavi (second from right), Garrett Hedlund (far right), and Finn Wittrock (not pictured) brought their new film Unbroken to the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday for its first public screening.

That Louis Zamperini is an American hero is unquestionable. That his life journey is the stuff of cinema is undeniable. There is a great film to be made from the story of an Olympic athlete stranded at sea during World War II, rescued by the Japanese military, and subjected to years of abuse in prisoner-of-war camps. Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is not that film.

Jolie and the film’s stars, Jack O’Connell, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, and Finn Wittrock, brought the film to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its first public screening Tuesday. Judging by the enthusiastic applause that accompanied the credits – particularly for O’Connell’s laudable performance as Zamperini – the sold-out theater got what it wanted. Apparently, what the audience wanted was a flag-waving, xenophobic tribute to one man’s brutal journey to find the lord.

“We had the great fortune to meet Louis and spend time with him,” said Jolie of her friend and neighbor who died in July. “Even in his last days, he was so full life. His spirit was so strong. … Louis said, ‘Make a film that’s not about how extraordinary I am. Make a film that helps people remember that they have that strength inside of them.’”

This was an edict – from the man, himself – with which the assembled cast nodded in agreement. In fact, throughout the half-hour moderated question-and-answer session that followed the screening, the director and cast members spoke at length about their desire to display the humanity of all sides, to show the Japanese soldiers as more than one-dimensional villains, and to celebrate the spirit inside all people. They accomplished none of these goals.

It is almost remarkable how different Unbroken is from the film Jolie and company thought they were making and indeed felt they had produced. Told exclusively from Zamperini’s point of view, the audience is never given the slightest indication that any of the supporting characters have rich inner lives. They are merely there to bear witness to the feats of the hero at the center of the story.

During the Q-and-A, Jolie and Hedlund brought up the diaries of Zamperini’s fellow prisoners of war. Hedlund’s character is based entirely on the journal of John Fitzgerald, which would be a wonderful jumping-off point for a character if he were given anything meaningful to do in the film. Worse still, when Jolie mentioned other prisoners’ notebooks, she spoke of them only in the context of what they wrote about Zamperini. This is not what Zamperini would have wanted nor what Jolie said she wanted.

The film has many issues, but foremost among them is the disconnect between intent and execution. It would be one thing to set to out to make a bland story about an American hero and produce a bland film. Perhaps such an effort could be excused and simply chucked on the pile with the rest of the World War II film canon. However, Jolie begins with a set of well-intentioned and high-minded goals and proceeds to undercut and contradict all of them. Such problems take the film from the realm of the merely bland into the patently offensive.

Jack O'Connell stars as American war hero Louis Zamperini in Unbroken.

In particular, one sequence stands out as exemplary of the film that could have been but did not come to pass. After an Allied attack, the prisoners are marched through the streets of Japan on their way to a new camp. As they walk, they pass the bodies of the dead Japanese civilians and the loved ones left behind to grieve. In this scene – and only in this scene – we see the other side. Both sides incurred untold tragedies, and from a civilian standpoint, the Japanese suffered losses Americans could not begin to understand.

Such observations would have served the filmmakers well and helped establish the humanity they claim they wished to depict. Instead, the film’s Japanese representative is Mutsushiro “The Bird” Watanabe, played by Japanese pop star Miyavi. Watanabe is the villain of the piece, and that is all he is. He is a sadistic, petty man whose sole motivation seems to be jealousy of how great a man Zamperini is.

This view is confirmed by Miyavi himself who said during the Q-and-A that The Bird wanted to be like Zamperini and envied his inner strength. One almost feels bad for Miyavi having to play such a caricature, and he informed the audience afterward he was not aware of Zamperini’s story before being cast because the book on which the film is based is not translated into Japanese.

These are old wounds that have healed poorly. I have no reason to doubt the film’s claim that Zamperini was a man of faith, forgiveness, and reconciliation. These are the qualities Jolie said she hoped her film would “live up to,” but her cardboard antagonist serves only to inflame hate and stoke old grudges. It is a classic American World War II fantasy. The Allies are all good, while the Japanese are all evil; therefore, all actions taken to defeat the enemy are justifiable.

Unbroken is not the only film to fall into this trap. In fact, a majority of U.S.-produced World War II movies take this viewpoint. With the exception of Pearl Harbor, the war was never at our doorstep. The real horrors were across the sea in either direction. While one need not be impressed, one also cannot fault a movie for failing to transcend old tropes. However, when a film such as this sinks into the gulf between intent and execution, the audience has a right to rise above it and demand not to be pulled down into the muck.

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