Unbroken (and Unread): A Strictly Film Review

Very rarely can I say that my neglectful reading habits come as a benefit to my perspective on the world. However, I have been able to garner one benefit from this anti-bibliophilic nature of mine: the ability to critique a movie without any preconceived expectations or judgments. So if you see me at the movie theater, you won’t find me snootily remarking that “the movie was okay, but the book was so much better.”

I find myself surrounded by these remarks quite often, and it makes me feel unprepared and even inferior (why did I pay 11 dollars for this again, exactly?). But recently, I realized something about movies; they have no prerequisites. I’m allowed to see a movie without “doing my homework” on it. And I’m allowed to enjoy it without comparing it to the way someone else presented it. So with that in mind, here are my thoughts on the newly released film, Unbroken, a heroic true story (based on a best-selling biography) that wrenches, swells, and stretches your heart in a thousand different directions.

The movie depicts the story of Louis Zamperini, a young man who immigrated with his Italian family as part of the Southeastern European movement to America at the end of the 19th century. Zamperini became an Olympic athlete for the United States, an ironic feat considering the cold welcoming that his family received upon immigration. He then joined the armed forces to fight in the Second World War, and endured more than the average veteran in his fight for his country. The historical themes of the war correlate well with the portrayal of Americans’ tactics and attitudes in Japanese detainment camps; the allies are persistent and strategic even on the brink of death.

The centerpiece of the film is Zamperini’s 47-day drift aboard a small life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean after a plane crash. This is when Zamperini’s determination to live is truly tested, and the delirium of the officers is conveyed genuinely and brilliantly. This part of the movie is especially emotionally charging because of its raw unpredictability (another benefit of not reading the book). I feared for those men’s lives in this scene, and British actor Jack O’Connell absolutely nailed the physical and emotional desperation of this moment.

What separates a movie from a book, most often, is the ability for one powerful image to capture the entire story. For this one, that picture is one of Louis Zamporini holding a large slab above his head, symbolizing the weight of his own challenges, his friends, and his country. The multiple levels of symbolism make Zamporini’s triumph so much more empowering and satisfying for viewers.

While the movie is an epic masterpiece, I did feel that some of Zamporini’s story was missing. Louis promises to devote his life to God if he makes it out alive, and this was not explored in great depth. The protagonist’s running career was also not nearly as well-understood as his time in uniform. Because of all the struggles that he faces throughout his story, the movie seems to have a negative sentiment to it, only truly satisfied at the very conclusion. This was a common criticism of Angelina Jolie’s film, but I thought it put so much more weight on the finale and gave me a sense of overwhelming resolve as I returned my cushy reclining chair to its original position.

I can say with confidence that my experience with this movie was made better by my isolating it from any other modes of the story. It was an amazing story, and I’m sure the biography is outstanding, but telling a story with pictures and a script is so different than simply wrapping it all up into the confinement of black ink. So next time you decide to fork over half of your college fund for some milk duds and an Icee at the movie theater, keep in mind that the movie you’re seeing is meant to be watched as simply a movie—nothing more. The writers and directors put hours upon hours making sure that they’re telling you every part of the story that they want to tell you, so don’t hold it next to anything. You may just walk out happy.