One of the most durable and prestigious genres in film is the biopic. The Story of Louis Pasteur, Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Patton, Funny Girl, Coal Miner’s Daughter, My Left Foot, Boys Don’t Cry, Erin Brockovich, Capote and most recently Lincoln all yielded Oscar Gold for actors. (And there are still people upset that Raging Bull isn’t on that list.) Other biopics have tugged at our heartstrings: Pride of the Yankees can still cause even a Boston Red Sox fan to shed a tear at the end, and it’s hard for music lovers not to get choked up at the end of The Glenn Miller Story. It would be easy to list a hundred lesser biopics that have played in theaters over the years. The newest addition to the list, Unbroken, may not capture gold at the Oscars, but it’s a worthy example of the genre.
The movie is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction book that has spent 4 years on the NY Times bestseller list. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a boy from Torrance, California who was well on his way to becoming a delinquent in his early teen years. Louis’ life was turned around when he focused himself on running on the track instead of running from the police, and he was eventually chosen for the 1936 US Olympic team that competed in Berlin. Those games belonged to Jesse Owens, but it was viewed as a tune-up for Zamperini who would then play a major part in the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo.
The outbreak of World War II canceled those games. After Pearl Harbor, Louis joined the Army Air Corps as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific Theater. While on a mission, the plane had to ditch in the ocean and only 3 of the crew made it out alive, with Louis among them. Louis survived for over 50 days at sea, an incredible accomplishment in itself, but then the survivors were found by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war as POWs in Japan.
That all is given away in the trailer, since you don’t see a biopic because of the plot twists. It is how the story is presented as well as the main actor’s performance that drives the box office. Angelina Jolie, in her sophomore directing effort, takes a straightforward approach that’s more in line with the biopics of the 1930s and 1940s. That’s not a bad thing. The opening sequence, where Louis’ plane is part of a large raid on a Japanese manufacturing target, is one of the more intense bombing scenes ever put on film. The B-24 was notoriously for its light constructed, which was good for its operating ceiling and range, but bad for the crew when enemy fighters were around. It was one reason among several that the plane was nicknamed the “Flying Coffin.” From that beginning the story of Louis before the war is told through a couple of extensive flashbacks.
The majority of the film focuses on Louis’ survival in shark-infested waters (including one scene that could be titled “turnabout is fair play”) and the even more horrific time spent as a Japanese POW, during which he was singled out by the camp’s commander for physical torture. In this, Jolie is assisted by her lead actor Jack O’Connell. The 24-year-old was an unknown outside his native England before he was cast, but he brings to the role an intensity similar to Tom Hardy or a young Al Pacino before he started chewing the scenery in almost every film.
The film also benefits from Takamasa Ishihara’s performance as Watanabe, the sadistic camp commander who is nicknamed “The Bird” by the inmates. When Louis asks why they gave him that nickname, the other inmates explain that the English-speaking Watanabe listens to their conversations, and if he heard what they really wanted to call him he’d kill them. Ishihara’s actually a rock star in Japan, and this is only his second film role. He carries it off with a quiet intensity that is all the more frightening. What begins as a physical battle between the two morphs over the course of the film into a psychological war.
The adaption of the book boasts some unusual suspects, in that Joel and Ethan Coen were two of the four writers who worked on the script. While it’s nowhere near the off-beat film you’d expect from the Coen brothers, you can see their touch throughout the movie. The other screenwriters who contributed to the movie were Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer) and William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator, Les Miserables).
This was a story long in coming to the screen – Universal had bought the rights back 1957 – but thanks to the success of the book, it finally made. Louis passed away earlier this year, though not before Jolie screened a rough cut of the film for him on her laptop in his hospital room. That’s fitting. In the end, Louis Zamperini’s story transcends the historical and becomes a spiritual one, and that’s where its power lies – not in the broad panorama of history and war, but in the personal determination to remain unbroken.