Friday, December 26, 2014

"Unbroken", by Angelina Jolie and the Coen Brothers, makes the POW experience from WWII Japan seem very personal

I am not particularly a fan of “life-raft” movies, or of films focusing on torture of good guys forever.  Nevertheless, I found “Unbroken”, directed by Angelina Jolie, quite compelling.  The end result was somewhat that of a big 80s movie, but that “ain’t bad”. And this time, it leads to more reflection of my own character. The film is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.”  The screenwriters are the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen) but this film hardly seems typical of their work.
The film is a biography (through V-J Day of WWII) of Louis Zamperini, (Jack O’Connell), who survived a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean in 1943, and was held under brutal conditions in a Japanese POW camp until the end.  The Japanese did not follow the rules of the Geneva Convention, which we were taught in Army Basic (in 1968), to say the least, but the conditions may have been more survivable than either Hitler’s or Stalin’s.
The film starts with an air battle, which leads to the crash.  The earlier events are told in flashback, and those related to combat (including an earlier crash landing) are a bit confusing.  But his boyhood as a “wop” (played by C. J. Valleroy) is compelling, and leads to his running track in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, expecting to repeat in 1940 in Tokyo!  I wanted to see more of the 1936 event, to see what Germany looked like to athletes then, and if they could pick up on any clue as to what Hitler was doing.  But that might have made a different movie.

Once in the camp, Louis has repeated confrontations with the abusive “Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), who makes his (and the other prisoners’) status as an enemy very personal, gratuitously so.  He was said to be spoiled when raised in the aristocracy, and he acts sometimes like his sadistic pleasure is sexual.  At one point, he gets the prisoners to perform a Cinderella show in drag.

The life-raft sequence has the guys catching an albatross, but vomiting after trying to eat it; but soon they learn the virtue of “free fish”, even if raw.

There's one other point hinted.  The movement of prisoners to Tokyo (before taking them high in the mountains), might have figured into Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb on (other) cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 
Other stars include Garrett Hedlund and Australian heartthrob Jai Courtney, neither of whom you want to see abused. 

The film calls to mind a number of films of partial genre match: “All Is Lost”, “Life of Pi”, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983). One might even draw a comparison to “Pearl Harbor” (2001) with the Doolitle raid at the end.

Tom Brokaw discussed the movie tonight on NBC News, interviewing Louis at age 97.  The idea came up that the people who survive enemy capture best are those who are extroverted and “like people’.

All of this gets personal for me.  I “volunteered for the draft” in 1968 and “served without serving” in a rather sheltered capacity, although I spent three weeks in Special Training Company at Fort Jackson SC.  I used to say, when a grad student (before service), that if I were maimed or disfigured in Vietnam combat, I didn’t want to come back.  In fact, I wasn’t the only one who said that then.  It may sound cowardly, and most of us don’t really know how we would react.  But the idea of expecting someone to love you (even sexually) after disfigurement or extreme disability caused by the violence of others, has always seemed revolting.  Yet, I can understand that unless people are game for that, a whole society will become fractured and more vulnerable to dismemberment by enemies.  That may be a valuable point to remember in considering the “values” of enemies of the West today (probably radical Islam – Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Iran – more than communism, even North Korea).  Yet, I tend to see the personal aspect of this as cut and dried.  Sacrifice is what it is – paying back karma, perhaps.  Playing up victimhood or even heroism doesn’t work for me.  Yet, I understand that forensic psychiatrists say people have to learn this as part of "resilience", maybe not so much for their own immediate good as for everyone else. 
The official site is here, from Universal and Legendary (which usually works with Warner Brothers, especially with Christopher Nolan).  I saw this at Angelika Mosaic on Friday afternoon, Boxing Day, before a sold-out crowd.  The film is long, at 137 minutes, and rather expansive, like a director’s cut, and somewhat styled like an independent film (like Universal Focus) rather than studio.  Yet, to do justice to the Olympics material, which should have been done, the film would top at about 160 minutes.  Expect the DVD to include more background material on this matter.  The film was shot largely in Australia, including the use of Fox studios there, swell as Queensland for the tropical scenes.  The music, by Andre Desplat, is not as original as some of his other scores. The film has no relation to M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable" (2000)  although the similarity of title is noteworthy, but probably coincidental. 
See more of an earlier broadcast by Tom Brokaw on this movie on TV blog Dec. 9, 2014.
Wikipedia attribution link for Japanese surrender in 1945. 

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