'tells a pretty standard US centric story about the Pacific theater during WW2. In the standard story, there is usually a single white hero, the person who sets and interprets the story for the viewer. They are like Cool Hand Luke, getting up over and over again, no matter how many times they are struck down, overcoming the great challenges put in front of them – usually put there by the Japanese. If Japanese are given roles at all, it’s either non-speaking ‘people who sit in a room planning war actions’ or the single sadist that tortures and violates the hero of the camp.'
The Cool Hand Luke reference is apropos here, since Jolie's film doesn't stint on the Christic imagery, most obviously when Zamperini is forced to hold aloft a wooden beam as a punishment - a feat that he accomplishes with the superhuman stamina that is statutory in this genre. Indeed, Zamperini is crudely heroised here and as several critics have noted, the film elides some unhappy biographical details, such as Zamperini's post-war struggle with alcoholism, that, had they been kept in, might have made for a more complex tale.
The problem is not just that the film is oversimplified and bowdlerised. There's also a kind of false balance at work here. Jolie draws a parallel between Zamperini's brutal mistreatment in the Pacific and, through a series of flashbacks, his experiences of anti-Italian racism in the US. Superficially, at least, this seems an even-handed gesture aimed at establishing some kind of equivalence between racism at home and abroad. Yet a more rigorous and salient comparison would have been between the undeniably appalling suffering of US soldiers in the Pacific - which Jolie actually depicts with restraint - and the savage treatment of the Japanese by the Americans in the same theatre, up to and including the dropping of the atomic bombs. That would have made for a far less patriotic picture and it is clear that Jolie et al did not want to go there. The Yanks, after all, are supposed to be the good guys.
Overall, then, Unbroken is a banal and chauvinistic film. I wasn't entirely surprised by this. As I argued in a previous blog post, Jolie's 2011 directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey is a tendentious effort in which the complexities of the Bonian war are reduced to a morality tale of heroic Bosnians and cartoonishly monstrous Serb villains - the standard presentation of the conflict in Western media and political circles (indeed, Jolie's research for that film included a meeting with US General Wesley Clark).
It's not easy to make a 'critical' film about WWII, which was, according to the popular patriotic myth, a 'good' war' fought by America's 'greatest generation'. But in the best war films we witness the chaos of conflict, the dissent in the ranks, the soldiers' cowardice and bravery, heroism and meanness, and the sufferings of 'the enemy'. Such films communicate what Lawrence Le Shan calls the 'sensory reality' of war. In Terence Malick's richly phenomenological The Thin Red Line, the force of this reality prompts a questioning of the socio-political order and poses a direct challenge to official propaganda ('They want you dead - or in their lie', in the stark words of First Sergeant Edward Welsh). In Malick's film, the battlefield is perceived by many of the soldiers as a strange, other place, swarming with both beautiful wildlife and murderous humanity - a heterotopia, in Foucault's sense, in which the socially sanctioned conception of the soldier as Hero or Destroyer appears absurd. But in Unbroken, as in In the Land of Blood and Honey, we are taken to a very different place: here we enter Le Shan's 'mythic reality' of war, a Manichean realm of good versus evil in which the confusion, contradictions and horror of armed conflict, the inner turmoil of the soldier, and the experiences of enemy Others, are imperceptible.
These failings matter not just because Unbroken was a huge box office draw, but also because Jolie, as a result of her work with the UN and her earlier cinematic performances in 'humanitarian' films such as Beyond Borders, has achieved a certain global standing as a celebrity liberal philanthropist. In its pro-US sentiment and soft orientalism, Unbroken recalls previous gung-ho Hollywood treatments of the war in the Pacific, such as Michael Bay's 2001 turkey Pearl Harbour. But Bay could never be mistaken for anything other than a conservative jingoist; Jolie, by contrast, has a reputation as a thoughtful humanist devoted to 'good causes'.
I hope that Jolie will use her considerable resources - including her own evident passion for political filmmaking - to better effect in future projects. Her forthcoming Netflix drama about the Cambodian genocide has been produced by the brilliant Rithy Panh, so all hope is not yet lost.