"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 apposite 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 fairer and more 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.
I wasn't entirely surprised by the film's national chauvinism. 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). And let's face it, it's not easy to make a critical film about WWII, which was, according to patriotic myth, a 'good war' fought by America's 'greatest generation'.
Nevertheless, it is possible to do better. 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 the psychologist Lawrence Le Shan calls the 'sensory reality' of war. Take, for example, Terence Malick's richly phenomenological The Thin Red Line, in which the overwhelming force of this 'sensory reality' exposes the narrowness of military discourse 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). The island of Guadalcanal is perceived by many of the film's soldiers in a highly subjective mode as a liminal space between life and death, a contradictory place of man-made horror and natural plenitude that is filled with the sights and sounds of human suffering but which also pullulates with exotic plant and animal life. It is a heterotopia, in Foucault's sense, an 'other' place which facilitates different ways of seeing and knowing and which opens a minimal space for social critique. Here idealized conceptions of the Good War or martial heroism are rendered absurd by the sheer abundance and diversity of Life. But in Unbroken, as in In the Land of Blood and Honey, we are taken to a very different place; here we enter into Le Shan's 'mythic reality' of war: a Manichean realm of good versus evil in which the confusions and contradictions of armed conflict - and the experiences of enemy Others - are imperceptible, foreclosed by convention and cliché.
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 some of Hollywood's earlier gung-ho and historically dubious 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'. To earn this reputation, Jolie will have to use her considerable resources - including her 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.