Immortality in Empathy — “Unbroken”

Unbroken train

by Gabriel Valdez

Unbroken is a film of tremendous beauty and rare elegance. It’s based on the life of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympian who became a bombardier in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. His bomber crashed in the Pacific and, after being lost at sea for more than a month, he became a Japanese prisoner of war, subject to a warden who was later sought for war crimes due to his brutality.

None of these details are spoilers – they’re all part of an historical account. I’m not sure one could spoil director Angelina Jolie’s movie either. Its profound effect isn’t simply due to the facts of its story. In fact, Jolie overcomes a surprisingly unremarkable script written in part by the Coen brothers, auteurs from whom I usually expect more.

What Jolie finds as a director are the details that shape a moment, that take a cinematic scene and turn it into a peek inside someone else’s memory. We see the sweeping wind across Louis’s hometown, seeming to echo his sense of being a loner. We hear the rustle of the palms in the tropical Pacific wind as Louis runs a time trial before a mission. We watch the glitter of the stars as Louis tries to sleep after a month in a lifeboat at sea.

Unbroken prayer

Few of us lead epic lives, but we all have epic memories, the kind where we can still see and smell and even taste the moment. Jolie uses the astounding cinematography of Roger Deakins to evoke a sense of texture that is both artful and personal. Much in Unbroken is left unsaid – themes aren’t debated in dialogue so much as hinted at in passing details. You get a sense how influenced Jolie’s been by directors she’s worked with as an actress, particularly the wry, spare, and evocative style of Clint Eastwood, where the most important words are always left unspoken.

Many critics have taken Unbroken to task for not being grand enough or for focusing on the brutal, wartime aspects of Louis’s life. Jolie’s aim here is to communicate a message of forgiveness and, rather than show a pained veteran dramatically learning how to offer it to those who wronged him, she focuses on Louis’s time as a prisoner-of-war. She tallies the moments that are unforgivable in order to build up how insurmountable a task forgiveness can be. In showing us Louis’s will to overcome life-or-death moments, she displays how understanding and forgiving your enemies is a similarly noble act of inner strength.

Unbroken camp

That can’t be communicated by dialogue or by beautiful cinematography. It’s communicated through empathy, and in Jolie’s hands that means finding the precise visuals and storytelling moments that create a memory: the shadows that fill the room while a father disciplines a child and the mother holds another. The look that mother gives when she knows her son is watching her cook from scratch, the simple, private pride of a humble moment. A photograph of Louis’s captor as a young boy, with his own strict father and impossible expectations. The glitter of bombers and fighters on the Tokyo horizon, signaling a war that’s drawing to a close. Jolie is not a perfect filmmaker here. She’s something more important – a storyteller who communicates with a powerful empathy that I believe audiences are understanding more than critics. The packed house I watched with gave the film a standing ovation. How rare is that?

If the goal of this movie is to inspire, Unbroken does that in spades. I walked out feeling uplifted and more determined in my own goals than when I’d went in. If the goal of the movie is to make me contemplate the brutality of war and torture, and to better ennoble and idealize the values in forgiveness, it does that, too.

Unbroken doesn’t set out to overwhelm you the way so many big-budget war films do. It doesn’t seek to redefine what makes a film either, instead choosing a very classic approach to storytelling. The effect it has is quiet, philosophical, and spiritual, but it’s not without its compelling moments and tense sequences. This is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. There are cliché moments, but you’re allowed to be cliché when you do it this well. O’Connell’s is a fully inhabited performance. You don’t get the sense that he’s acting, so much as living and breathing the hours of another man.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Unbroken have more than one woman in it?

No. Louis has both a mother and sisters, and a few women cheer him on from the stands during his races, but blink and you’ll miss all but his mother. She’s the only woman of any consequence in the film.

Questions 2 (Do they talk to each other?) and 3 (About something other than a man?) are void without passing Question 1.

This presents an interesting situation: one of the few women greenlit to direct a big-budget film makes one that doesn’t feature any female characters. Since our viewpoint is restricted to Louis’s own and the film focuses on his time spent in the military and as a prisoner of war, I can understand the choice. There aren’t many scenes here that would logically or historically include women. That said, including more women in any film isn’t difficult.

There’s something more important here, though, and that is – as a male critic – am I qualified to dictate to a female director how to better tell stories including women? One of the things that needs to change in criticism is for critics ourselves to recognize and admit when we don’t know something or are not qualified to critique a certain aspect of a film. There’s a terrible fear that if we ever admit something like this on any front, we’ll lose the trust of our audience, as if that audience expects us to know everything all the time. That feeds into the notion that a critic’s opinion is somehow more valuable or important than that of the person next to you. It isn’t. It never will be. At best, a critic is someone who can foster conversation and new understandings about a film, not someone who will tell you how to think.

The Bechdel section we’ve included functions so well because more than 90% of the major films out there are directed by men. Close to half the films that are made don’t pass the Bechdel Test, even though its qualifications are incredibly simple to meet. The argument has never been that all films need to pass it, or that we shouldn’t be allowed to tell stories that don’t pass it. The argument is simply to apply pressure that encourages more films to pass it.

The Bechdel Test is a tool. It’s informational. It helps, but it doesn’t define. Unbroken tells a male story from what many would refer to as a female perspective – one of emotion and memory. There’s an argument to be made that its empathy isn’t something you’ll find in most films because most films are directed from what we think of as a male perspective – one of facts and story. The delineation between these two perspectives is culturally ingrained – men are just as capable of empathy, women are just as capable of logic. The storytelling culture we live in reinforces a false separation that trains us to believe that this isn’t true. Women are trained to value different aspects in a story than men are. While those boundaries are weakening in some parts of American culture, they are still very present and they are still very ingrained.

Criticism is a male-driven industry and, no matter how much any individual male critic might like to think he exists outside that cultural training, he really doesn’t. That includes me. Now, I value empathy in storytelling, and I’m willing to forget the traditional landmarks of plot in favor of an empathetic connection. Might that allow me to prioritize aspects of a story differently from other critics? Yeah, absolutely. (I think that’s why many critics bounce off Unbroken. The industry values a more academic perspective on film, which is not how audiences watch movies. Audiences value emotional reaction.) Every critic values some particular aspect of storytelling more than the next one, and every critic is going to be able to speak to you about that aspect with more nuance and consideration than the next.

Simply because I value what we’re inaccurately trained to think of as a female value in storytelling does not, however, make me suddenly qualified to tell a woman how to direct better for women. One is a matter of perspective. The other is a matter of reality. They ultimately have nothing to do with each other. I’m qualified to discuss the empathy in Unbroken because it’s not a perspective exclusive to women, and it’s an aspect in storytelling I deeply value. I am not qualified to tell a woman how to change or not change her storytelling when it comes to including women. That may be an aspect of storytelling I value, but as a male critic, I don’t believe I have the right to take possession of that argument.

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