I was a little late to the Unbroken party. The book became a best-seller in 2010, carefully and meticulously written by Laura Hillenbrand (who also wrote Seabiscuit), but I only recently finished it in time to see the movie version, directed by Angelina Jolie. To say the story is remarkable is an understatement – it’s truly incredible what one person can endure – and the comments from friends who’d read it before me, praise it as one of the best ever read. After finishing it, I would have to agree.
The story of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner who endured 47 days lost at sea, only to be picked up by a Japanese warship and held for more than two years as a POW during World War II, is one helluva testament to the human spirit to survive and overcome.
Jolie chose the story of Louis Zamperini to be her second directorial feature, following 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, set in the Bosnian war. With its scenes of torture and rape, that was a brutal film to watch but it felt like bearing witness out of necessity and compassion. Unbroken, too, as a film is relentless and harrowing to watch, as it is to read.
The film is good – I wouldn’t say you could make it any more or less harsh than the story itself. His agony was indeed epic. But I did wonder if my imagination was at times a little stronger; I found myself crying all throughout the book (sometimes in public places, which is always awkward). In print, Hillenbrand succeeds in re-creating for us what Zamperini had been thinking and feeling going through all the events he did. It’s hard to show that onscreen and you don’t really get that sense of despair and violation – the sheer agony of being in captivity where mind torture can be even more brutal than physical punishments.
To be sure, British actor Jack O’Connell is very good in the role. You are with him all the way, from the moment he and his crew-mates are on board the B-24 bombing raid of a Japanese-held island in the Pacific. Just as you are there when he delights in his running ability, which took him to the 1936 Olympics. But I found the music and score to be a little cheesy and intrusive at times. The woman next to me, gobbling her popcorn during one of the film’s torture scenes, took me out of the moment too. Perhaps I’m a tad sensitive, but I guess that’s how it goes with blockbusters, even if they are based on true-life events.
For whatever its shortcomings may be, the film is still a valuable one, and it has much to say on the issue of forgiveness, which is ever-relevant with all that has been happening in the US at the moment. I spoke to Jolie about the idea of forgiveness and whether it’s only within the realm of a select few. Her answer is one that speaks to our times now, just as it did for Zamperini’s.
With it being a year on Friday since Nelson Mandela died, I can’t help but think of the anniversary as a good time to be thinking about the idea of forgiveness, and justice, and giving a damn about what goes on around us.
If you haven’t read Unbroken yet, please do yourself the favour.
Unbroken releases in the US on Christmas Day and in South Africa on January 16.