The recent film American Sniper has sparked a national discussion of what it means for war veterans to receive hero worship as opposed to genuine human depiction. But while the debate continues about how we view our soldiers, we might risk overlooking the more personal struggles they face in the darkest parts of service.
Angelina Jolie’s film Unbroken (itself an adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book) attempts to take this aspect of military service head on by examining the life of Louis Zamperini, an airman in World War II.
But does her portrayal capture the message of the book? And does Jolie really captivate the audience with something unique?
Jack O’Connell stars as Zamperini throughout a series of flashbacks, a device that feels a little forced at first and grows somewhat tiring to watch. His childhood as a troublemaker and his subsequent rise as a competitive distance runner lay the groundwork for the film’s repeated moral message: always do your best and never give up.
Jolie seems determined to hammer home the relevance of this sentiment as Zamperini’s Air Force service takes him through one seemingly unbearable trial after another.
The last act of the film is increasingly heavy-laden with suffering that becomes quite hard to watch at times. While we are eager to sympathize with Zamperini as a real person whose tribulations were probably not too exaggerated, it can be difficult to really value their significance when the theme of determination and perseverance is hammered home so directly.
One reviewer compared the film to “an epic version of a motivational poster from Hallmark,” tied together with inspiring quotes.
Nonetheless, O’Connell does deliver a solid portrayal. One that borders on gripping during the more brutal scenes.
The book, however, extends beyond torture and suffering as its central struggles.
The film says very little of Zamperini’s life after the war. Though a caption does note that he would eventually forgive his Japanese captors, his battle with PTSD and alcoholism are glossed over.
In fact, the road to forgiveness was almost as life changing as the war itself – Zamperini renewed his faith and transformed his life in those years which are regrettably left out. Although it might sound cynical, it’s possible that scenes of American soldiers being mistreated and abused in camps might have simply been considered more exciting material than Zamperini’s road to personal recovery.
At a time when war veterans are quickly given the distinction of “hero,” it’s possible that filmmakers would rather play to our emotions than tell the stories of the human beings who risked everything for a cause.
As compelling as it may be to watch Zamperini triumphantly lift that beam of wood above his head, isn’t his post-war struggle just as worthy of documentation?
Unbroken certainly has its flaws. At times, Jolie seems more interested in easy emotional reactions and glorified suffering than she does in faithfully presenting the life of a real man.
Yet much of the central message of the book is held cohesively together in O’Connell’s performance.
Those who can forgive blunt sentimentalism may find the story to be one of the undying hope and courage that can endure within the human spirit. If nothing else, they will likely walk away feeling grateful their daily struggles don’t involve physical survival.