The real life Louie Zamperini was born in poverty to immigrant parents, but he trained hard and eventually ran in the Munich Olympics, where he shook Adolf Hitler's hands after placing 8th in the 5,000 meter. A few months later he was fighting for America in World War 2, and he set a world record for days adrift at sea after his plane was shot down. He ended up spending a few years doing hard labor in Japanese labor camps, but he survived the harsh treatment and eventually lived to be 97.
In other words Zamperini lived the sort of awe inspiring life that was made to be immortalized in uplifting Hollywood movies. So why does Unbroken, the movie which chronicles his life story, fail so badly at being inspirational?
Well, there are a lot of reasons. Chief amongst them is that Jack O'Connell's performance as Zamperini is so uninviting. It's the sort of internal performance that could do a good job of grounding a movie with a larger more dynamic cast, but unfortunately this movie is exclusively focused on Zamperini. The fact that Zamperini was rarely in control of his own destiny and the steady stoicness of O'Connell's face eventually makes Zamperini seem like a passive participant in his own story - not exactly what you want from a movie about a conquering hero.
Then there's also the awkwardness of the script, which has to try to wedge unrelated events together as if they were all part of one continual story. Zamperini's Olympic performance is impressive and I see why it was included in the movie - but it is also completely unrelated to his time lost at sea; there's no way to draw a narrative line from one set of circumstance to the other. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario for the scriptwriters because they cannot afford to leave out any of the most interesting facets of Zamperini's life but they also don't have any way to weld them together into any sort of traditional introduction-rising action-conclusion type of story. Like a lot of underwhelming biopics Unbroken feels like a series of long vignettes, and as such, it is destined to feel uneven, as it is basically impossible for all of the different chapters to be equally interesting.
Then there's Unbroken's tonal problem - it can't quite sell the events it is depicting as an adventure story because they are for the most part tragic. Yes, Zamperini managed to outlast the forces of nature that nearly killed him in the ocean and yes he managed to outlast the cruel guards who were trying to break his spirit in the camps, but both situations were rife with suffering and death. Furthermore, there is a world of difference between enduring something and triumphing over it, and Unbroken makes it clear that the stubborn but pliant Zamperini was all about endurance. Remarkable endurance, but endurance nonetheless.
However, the biggest reason why I found it so hard to be inspired by Zamperini's tribulations is because they were all completely unrelateable. Now, I understand that in most cases it is silly to ask that a character be "relateable" because we want stories about heroes, not office drones, but still, for this story to work it's hero has to be something of an audience proxy, and Unbroken does a notably terrible job of making it seem like Zamperini's trials have any relationship to anything I could imagine ever befalling me. I'm not going to go to the Olympics; I'm not going to go to war; I'm not going to get lost at sea or get stuck in a labor camp. My problems revolve around more mundane concerns like money worries, family squabbles, mid-life crisis fears about my overall lack of accomplishments in life. What does surviving in a boat for a month in a half have to say to those fears?
I understand the principle at work here; I'm fully aware that I'm supposed to see him outlasting his epic problems and realize that I, too, might have a secret capacity for endurance that could carry me through life's darkest hours. And in a better film it would have worked that way - I can think of several war films that have inspired me despite (or even because) they were so much more intense than my real life. But those films always had an aching humanity to them that I could wrap my head around, while Unbroken offers you no access to the inner core of what made Zamperini tick. And even if I did feel like I had some way inside Zamperini's head I still can't imagine feeling a connection with him because the two of us are such unfathomably different people. He remained defiant even when his problems seem truly insurmountable, but me? Well, you know how most cats will make a face when you flip them upside down and rub their tummy but they'll kind of tolerate it? That's basically how I approach adversity: I'll look disgruntled and eventually I'll try to wriggle out of it but I do want to know if it will go away on it's own before I do anything about it. A meek sulker like myself is just not going to see a guy beat a shark to death with his bare hands and think "yeah, I could do that."
Movies like Unbroken have to walk a thin line between the forest and the trees: they have to simultaneously be about larger than life legends and flesh and blood men. They have to be about characters that you would look up to (literally, if you saw this on the big screen) but they also have to be about people who seem so normal that you could easily imagine walking a mile in their shoes. Unbroken somehow managed to fall off on both sides of that line. It's unshaped story has that sort of random feel that you get from a real person's biography but it also never felt like life as I know it. But then again, I am still young, and I'm not done defining what "life as I know it" is. Maybe one day I'll be 97 years old, shaking Hitlers hand and eating raw chunks of shark flesh for sustenance, and on that day I will say: "Louis Zamperini, I can truly relate to your meaningful and inspiring example."
Winner: The Cat