Sunday, May 7, 2017


Year 9, Day 127 - 5/7/17 - Movie #2,622

BEFORE: According to the IMDB, there's an appearance in this film by someone playing Jesse Owens, so that probably means that he and Louis Zamperini were on the same Olympic team.  That allows me to get to this film next, since I'm allowing to carry over characters from one film to the next.  I think at the time I made up this chain, "Race" was a linking dead-end - since then, I've added a couple of films with William Hurt, like "Vantage Point" and "Mr. Brooks", to the list, but I'm not inclined to tear the chain apart and re-build it, it seems like too much work.

I did watch "Rogue One" with my wife last night, so for us Star Wars day came a bit after May the Fourth - I don't think she was sold on it, and on my second viewing I had most of the same problems that I had the first time.  But it was a bit clearer for me why the team didn't go straight to the planet Scarif, plus I noticed a couple of Easter eggs I hadn't seen before.  But that last hour, still so reminiscent of an office-based IT problem!  I had work-based stress dreams all night long as a result - or maybe those came from the fact that I'm fulfilling Kickstarter rewards at both jobs right now, and the process is simultaneously tiresome, confusing and seemingly never-ending.  Oh well, it's a living.

I still need to figure out what movies I'm going to save to link to "Star Wars: Episode VIII", which is not that far off, when you get right down to it.  December might seem like a long way away, but if you mark time like I do, it's only 170 to 180 movies in my future.

THE PLOT: After a plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he's caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.

AFTER: Turns out Jesse Owens was only seen in passing in the film - you see him standing in the Olympic opening (?) ceremonies, where Zamperini notices him.  And that's it - but Owens ran the shorter races like the 100-meter dash, while Zamperini ran in the 5,000 meters, where he set a record for a time on the final lap, but finished 8th and didn't medal.  Still, Hitler wanted to meet Zamperini, and as we found out last night, chose not to shake Jesse Owens' hand.  That's just the sort of behavior you expect from Hitler, right?  The movie chose to omit this fact, along with the story that Zamperini ate quite a lot on the boat trip over to Germany, and gaining so much weight may have affected his chances on the track.  Hey, I gained a lot of weight on my first cruise too - on all of them, in fact.

I realize that making any film, especially a biopic such as this, involves a lot of choices.  What parts of a man's life should be left in, and which should be left out?  (Yeah, probably leave out the part about shaking hands with Hitler...). But I wish that more time could have been devoted to the 1936 Olympics, which got the bum's rush here, I think.  Even though his late comeback in the race only brought him up to 8th place, what was his training like?  How is training for, and running in, such a long race different from participating in a short race?  Did he treat the 1936 Olympics as just a warm-up for the 1940 Olympics?  We'll never know, because the movie doesn't tell us - oh, and the 1940 Olympics were cancelled because of World War II. The next summer games weren't until 1948.

(NITPICK POINT: The 1936 Olympics looked much different in "Unbroken" than they did in "Race".  I didn't see one swastika or Nazi flag in the scenes in "Unbroken" - maybe that was a conscious choice because they might have distracted from the main story, but that still counts as whitewashing history, and it's not cool.)

But the worst offense in this film is the non-linear timeline, something I've ranted against over and over.  The only director that I'll allow to get away with this is Tarantino, because he knows what he's doing.  He used this time-jumping effect in "Pulp Fiction" and "The Hateful Eight", among others, in ways that enhance the story - when flashing back will add information to a scene that wasn't available or relevant before, but is needed NOW to explain or enhance, or possibly to add additional insight, or make a connection between two events.  But this doesn't work in "Unbroken", and I'll explain why.

First off, we see Zamperini as a bombardier on a mission in the Pacific in 1943, and the plane engages with Japanese planes, and almost doesn't make it back to base.  Clearly someone identified this as on of the most gripping events in the story, and yielded to the temptation to lead off with it, thinking it would draw more people into the film, implying that the whole film is going to be THAT exciting.  But that's misleading, and then leads to narrative problems down the road.  Later (which is really earlier) when we see Zamperini training for and competing in the Olympics, we already know that a troubled bombing mission is in his future - there's no suspense, no surprise over where his life is leading.  And he certainly didn't know he'd be on a bombing mission 7 years later, so why should we?

Then the film chooses to go back to his childhood, showing him as a troubled youngster, drinking and looking up girls' skirts from under the bleachers, and training for the track team is pitched as a way to instill discipline - but if this is truly the course of events that made him into an athlete, this is where the film should have started.  Placing the bombing mission first is just an admission that his childhood and teen years just weren't very interesting.  It's OK, everyone wishes they could skip their awkward teen years, and with a film, you can do that.  Just start with the 5 minutes on the start of his running career, and fast-forward to the Olympics.

Which the film does - but first we're thrust back into World War II for a bit, which has enormous potential to be confusing for anyone who might not be sure about which Olympics Zamperini was in, and whether that happened before the war or after.  Then after some more of the war, finally we get to the Olympics, which means we've gone BACK again in time.  Look, I'm all for bouncing around through a man's life, Billy Pilgrim-style, if there's a purpose to it, but doing so here adds nothing to the story.  If thinking about his Olympic race was the thing that allowed him to survive the prison camp, then that's fine.  But after the Olympic scenes we're fast-forwarded back to 1943, to another mission and another plane crash, and then the time-jumping abruptly ends, because we're apparently where/when the director wants us to be.

The other problem with telling both a "men adrift on a life-raft" story and a "POW camp" story is that neither tend to be visually or narratively interesting.  (There are exceptions, of course, like "Life of Pi" and "The Great Escape"...). They're both barren, boring places to be, and what little does happen there seems forced or manipulative.  And why bother numbering the days as they pass by on the life-raft scenes, if you're not going to do that for the POW camp scenes?  Haven't we already established that time is fluid and non-linear in this movie?  How are we supposed to get a feel for how long 47 days is if the movie skips through them so quickly?

And then we get to the POW camp, and I've got other issues.  There's a sadistic Japanese corporal, who the Americans call "The Bird", (For what reason?  Because they can't call him what they want to call him?  Umm, that's not an answer...) who takes a special interest in tormenting Zamperini with an odd combination of physical beatings, contradictory drill-sergeant style commands ("Look at me!  Look at me!  Don't LOOK at me!") and trying to act like the Olympic athlete's friend.  The character of Zamperini chooses to respond by either looking away or mentally shutting down, which is a questionable acting choice, or by just "persisting", which in the end is not very cinematic.  Obviously I wasn't there, but neither were the screenwriter or director, so really, none of us are in a position to say that this is the way that things went down - I just feel that if it were, I'd be very surprised.

The ending captions highlight Zamperini's eventual return to the Olympics (running with the Olympic torch at the age of 80 in Japan, ironically enough) - which is fine, but then this is ruined (my opinion) by a follow-up caption stating that he "devoted his life to God" and "forgave his captors".  Give me a break - I mean, it's fine if that's what worked for him, but it's incredibly self-righteous to mention it that way, as if this "born-again" mentality is an obvious life-win to anyone.  If he truly endured what the movie said he did, I'd probably identify with him more if he led a life of quiet hatred and spite, it just seems to make more logical sense.  But hey, the man lived to the age of 97, maybe spite is the real silent killer.

Starring Jack O'Connell (last seen in "300: Rise of an Empire"), Domhnall Gleeson (last seen in "The Revenant"), Garrett Hedlund (last seen in "Pan"), Finn Wittrock (last seen in "The Big Short"), Miyavi, Jai Courtney (last seen in "Suicide Squad"), John Magaro (last seen in "Carol"), Luke Treadaway (last seen in "Clash of the Titans"), Vincenzo Amato, Maddalena Ischiale, Ross Anderson, Travis Jeffery, Jordan Patrick Smith, Alex Russell (last seen in "Chronicle"), Louis McIntosh, Morgan Griffin.

RATING: 4 out of 10 punches to the face

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