Not all books convert well to the big screen. Laura Hillenbrand was already a successful author (“Seabiscuit”) and had successfully converted her book to screenplay when she (collaboratively) wrote “Unbroken,” the story of an Olympic athlete who was a bombardier during World War II, surviving a plane crash at sea and a brutal prisoner of war camp. Though there have been many WWII diaries published over the last couple of decades (as veterans wanted to hurry up and get their experiences written down while they still could), not many stories are as colorful as that of Louie Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell, a Brit), mainly because he was so willing to tell the unvarnished truth about himself.
He wasn’t exactly a model kid. Not only did he not pay attention in church, he stole stuff. Just because he could. The son of Italian immigrants, he claims the other boys made fun of him, called him “Wop” and routinely bullied him. He was a loner and probably headed to reform school when his older brother encouraged him to try running track. “If you can take it, you can make it,” was the mantra, meaning that all Louie had to do was be tough mentally and trade off a few moments of pain in order to win the prize. (Of course, that philosophy only works if you possess extraordinary talent in the first place, but we’ll leave the nature/nurture debate for now.)
Louie Zamperini not only became a track star, he set the California state record for the mile run and made the Olympic team. Here is the first opportunity missed: getting Louie to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 – yes, the one where the Nazi supremacists were aghast to see the black American Jesse Owens beat all those supposedly superior Aryan Caucasians. (Zamperini even met Adolph Hitler, at The Fuhrer’s request). But director Angelina Jolie chooses to skim over that part and just use the Olympics as a flashback. This movie starts in a B-24 being shot at somewhere over the Pacific. Here’s another missed opportunity: We might have enjoyed getting to know the rest of the crew and the close camaraderie of a bunch of guys thrown together to hurl themselves into imminent peril – but this movie wasn’t about them.
We know what happens because of the previews: They crash into the Pacific and only Louie and two crew members survive; they’re marooned on a life raft for many days, somehow surviving on catching fish (including a circling shark) and drinking rainwater. During a storm at sea, Louie has his “foxhole conversion” moment, promising the Lord that he’ll believe if he can survive this. The good news is that somebody finally finds them. The bad news is that it’s the enemy.
The Japanese Army’s Prisoner of War camp was brutal for everyone, but particularly so for Louie, especially when his captors found out that he had been an Olympic athlete. Somehow that singled him out for abuse, especially from a particular guard, Corporal Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). Once again, Louie told himself that if he could take it, he could make it. When their camp near Tokyo was bombed (an event which actually brought encouragement to the prisoners), they were moved to the mountains, excavating coal, though even there Corporal Watanabe continued to single out Louie for special abuse. But here is another opportunity missed: Instead of spending time on the continued beatings, perhaps we could have learned more about how the prisoners managed to form a sub-society of their own to help them all survive.
Anyway, at the end it’s heartwarming to see images of the “real” Louie Zamperini running again in the Olympics at age 80 in Japan (well, he carried a torch prior to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano). But though it mentions his PTSD, we don’t get that story, either. What we do get is a lot of dreary time on the life raft and even more dreary POW travail. The truth is, if you’ve seen the promo trailer, you’ve seen the movie. Yes, it’s a good story. But it sure could have been told better.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.