How popular is Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption? It’s currently selling more than twice as many copies as America’s #2 book. But if people love it so much, then why did film director Angelina Jolie break up Unbroken?
The critics are in a dither, fearing that a film that they dragged to the wrong half of Rotten Tomatoes ratings (it’s at 49%) will somehow ride Jolie’s press blitz and $100 million at the box office (by this time next week) to a Best Picture nomination. Isn’t the Academy listening to them, dammit?
The critics are right, but for the wrong reasons. They’re not articulating how a person can love the book but feel less enthusiastic about the movie. So allow me to help.
How do you adapt a book with that title, put “Survival. Resilience. Redemption” as your poster’s tagline, and then relegate the redemption to titles during the end credits? Dennis Marek asks something like the same question when he writes:
Of the 398 pages of Miss Hillenbrand’s book, the last 98 are after the surrender of Japan and Zamperini’s release from captivity. The book talks in depth of the post-war problems of this strong man, his battle with alcoholism, his failing marriage and finally his redemption when his wife takes him to one of Billy Graham’s revival meetings. The movie totally ignores the plight of returning soldiers, whether they suffered torture as a POW or the trauma of war itself. It would appear that just returning home cures all the problems of their ordeals. The most moving part of Hillenbrand’s book is the recovery by Louis Zamperini from the post traumatic stress disorder he surely suffered at the hands of his captors. I know that action sells, and Zamperini had plenty of action in his life, but his story as a returning veteran is the best-written part of the book. In the movie, we got Hollywooded. Give them the action, give them the blood and the guts, but don’t ever go inside the psyche of the man or woman after the action is over.
If Marek is looking for a reason, he should look no further than James Fallows’ excellent article in the Atlantic, which explains how and why Hollywood has become all too reverent of the military. But if Marek is wondering how a better film would have looked, he should keep reading this post.
The estimable Wesley Morris complains that Unbroken feels as though it were directed by a too-square Clint Eastwood, and he’s right, but Morris doesn’t bother to cite the way Eastwood films can work. Remember Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby? Best Picture winner of ten years ago? But you didn’t really know what the film was about until there were about 25 minutes left in it? That’s what Unbroken needed to be…and easily could have been.
Unbroken is missing what script doctors call an “Act 3,” basically the 20 minutes or so after our lead has gotten what s/he wants, but still must pursue what s/he needs. Not every film’s Act 3 is as twisty as Million Dollar Baby or Gran Torino, but it’s rare for a film to utterly eschew the final act, and unheard of in a script penned by the Coen brothers (who helped write Unbroken). Now, I understand that Unbroken was already about 2 ¼ hours long. So pare that down! A little less torture, some shorter air raids, a little less lingering in those courtyards as The Bird drifts into position, and feel free to cut all the business with Tokyo Radio. Now you’re down to 2 hours. Here’s a last 20 minutes (straight from Hillenbrand’s book, of course) that would have had the critics drooling instead of schooling:
Act III Scene 1:
Cutting from Long Beach Airport, Louis gives a speech at a rotary club. He says that he (Louis) isn’t particularly special, and lists reasons that POWs need support. As he speaks he sees a young beautiful woman, Cynthia, as well as a Japanese-American in U.S. Army regalia. Seeing the Asian man makes him quick-flash on The Bird; Louis abruptly finishes his speech.
Hotel room; Louis makes out with Cynthia. She stops him to ask if he really thinks he’s not special. Louis quick-flashes on the hundred men beating him up in camp. She brings him back and offers him a drink, which he refuses, to her puzzlement.
Stadium racetrack as Louis races others while Cynthia and Pete watch from the crowd. Someone in the crowd remarks that one of the men on that racetrack will someday be the first person ever to run a 4-minute mile. Louis’ ankle twists a bit, and he winces in pain, though he still wins the race.
Doctor’s office with Pete and Cynthia. The doctor refers to the threaded ankle Louis suffered when he fell while hauling coal. Louis asks if he’ll ever race again, and the doctor slowly shakes his head. Louis punches a wall.
Louis and Cynthia’s apartment; framed photos show that they have been married. Cynthia prays to candles and crucifixes as Louis is fixated on the radio. He listens as the 1500-meter winner is announced from the London 1948 Olympics. He drinks, then smashes up Cynthia’s prayer area.
Streets of Tokyo, not unlike the way Louis saw them earlier. But now The Bird is walking around as a free man in street clothes – until Louis sees him. Louis chases him, catches him. He strangles The Bird…and then he wakes up and realizes he is strangling Cynthia, who is pregnant! She is horrified and he is mortified. He takes a swig from a nearby whiskey bottle.
Cheerful reunion of POWs in a sort of auditorium/dining hall. The former prisoners are all dressed in their army bests, including Phil, Tucker, and other GIs we’ve come to know; several are with wives including Cynthia and Phil’s Cecy. Louis playfully suggests that the men should go to Japan and try to find and kill The Bird; the men laugh until they realize he’s serious, then they try to talk him down. The crowd cheers for Louis, who comes up and delivers a relatively embarrassing, shameful speech. Cynthia helps him off. He shouts at her and his friends, and storms out.
Cynthia comes home to the apartment to see Louis violently shaking the screaming baby. She screams.
Louis opens the door of his apartment, undoing the tie of his suit. He says something about how he wouldn’t want to work for that schmuck anyway, and then notices that something is wrong. He finds a note from Cynthia that she has left with their daughter and she wants a divorce. He smashes a chair, then drinks half a bottle of whiskey. The camera pans over the kitchen table: “past due” and “final notice” bills are everywhere.
Pete arrives at the apartment; Louis’ unkempt face indicates at least a week has passed. The apartment is equally unkempt. Louis offers his brother whiskey. Pete wants to know why Louis needs him to co-sign on a loan. Louis explains that money is about to come in, but he’s waiting…Pete interrupts that Louis has been trusting the wrong people. Pete asks about investments based in Japan; Louis shrugs; Pete asks Louis why he wants to go to Japan so badly; Louis shrugs again. Pete says he heard that Cynthia wants him to go to church. Louis says Pete heard wrong; it’s a revival tent. Pete offers to help Louis get work, but not the sort that will permit anything like a weeklong trip to the other side of the Pacific. Louis drinks and tells his brother to get out.
Revival tent, and the preacher is a young Billy Graham. Slow pan over congregants reveals Cynthia and finally Louie. Graham says “And when you stand before God on the great Judgment Day, you’re going to say ‘Lord I wasn’t such a bad fellow,’ and they are going to pull down the screen and they are going to shoot the moving picture of your life from the cradle to the grave, and…” Louis looks indignant, very indignant. Graham says something unheard, then, “Here tonight, there’s a drowning man, a drowning woman, a drowning boy, a drowning girl that is lost in the sea of life.” Louis quick-flashes to the plane crash, to the moment when he lost consciousness under the plane. Graham is muffled as Louis then flashes to the Japanese bombing their raft, Phil and Mac on the raft as Louis hides under it. As Louie breaks out of his reverie, Graham says “Every head bowed and every eye closed”…and Louie seizes Cynthia’s hand and takes them both out of the tent.
Louis is whipped and beaten by The Bird, but the Bird’s face morphs into that of the Devil. Louis wakes up in a cold sweat.
Cynthia and Louie are in the revival tent as Graham preaches. Louis whispers “We’re gone when he says, ‘every head bowed, every eye…’” She shushes him. Graham asks why God is silent while good men suffer. Graham says “If you look into the heavens tonight…” and Louie flashes back to the raft where he discussed faith with Phil. Graham, muffled, goes on about God running the whole universe while Louis quick-flashes the last lap in Berlin, the 4:12 in Hawaii, Phil saying “Rickenlooper’s record,” and Louis hears Graham say, “God works miracles one after another. God says if you suffer, I’ll give you the grace to go forward.” Louis flashes on his moments thrust underwater as Graham says “What God asks of men is faith. His invisibility is the truest test of that faith. To know who sees him, God makes himself unseen.” Louis sits in a pew in a cold sweat as Graham asks for bowed heads. Louis jumps up to flee, but Graham says “Nobody leaving. You can leave while I’m preaching but not now,” and more words to that effect as Louis makes it to the exit and stops. The tent becomes the raft, as Louis flashes back on the moment he once said “If you save me, I will serve you forever.” Louis feels rain on his face. Then the flashback returns to a rainless reality in a way not seen before, somehow suggesting that this might be the last flashback Louis ever has. Louis turns and walks to Graham, who welcomes him with a gesture.
Same clothes; Louie and Cynthia enter their apartment late at night. Louis takes all his liquor bottles and dumps them into the sink, every drop.
Louis wakes up next to Cynthia, obviously refreshed. He says this is the first time in five years he hasn’t dreamed about the Bird. She kisses him and says she’ll go get their daughter from her mother. He nods. When she leaves, he finds and begins to read his Bible.
The Victory Boys Camp in the San Gabriel Mountains, some ten years later. Kids go fishing, swimming, horseback riding, camping, hiking, even rappelling. Cynthia is near. Louis and Phil sit on a porch; Phil’s formal attire indicates he’s just visiting. Phil compliments Louis on all he’s built at the camp. Phil asks Louis about Louis’ trip to Japan, and seeing former captors. Louis says he saw them and realized he had nothing but forgiveness for them. Phil says, “Even the Bird…?” Louis smiles beatifically. He tells Phil, “I’m glad it was you.”