Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

23 January 2015

Inspiration, Overcoming, and Oscar Bait

Somewhere near the end of act two of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, the evil Japanese man who runs the P.O.W. camp where U.S. Olympian slash soldier Louie Zamperini is imprisoned forces the other Allied soldiers in the camp to punch Louie in the face. All of them. Louie takes their punches like a champ, screaming at his fellows who don't want to slug him Just hit me!

Jolie's film is a little bit like Louie at this moment in the movie.

It isn't that there aren't problems with the movie. There are plenty of them. But, like its hero, Unbroken seems to me a sort of resilient little guy. It tries and tries, and it wants to be something amazing. And as much as you might want to punch it in the face, it's just going to get up and stand there staring at you in defiance.

Unbroken, for the record, is based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand, and if you didn't know this before you started the movie, you will once you start watching. Anything that could happen to Louie Zamerpini happens to him. Hillebrand stuffs new events into Zamperni's life as though accretion will make him interesting, much like she did in the narrative she created that spawned Seabiscuit back in 2003. He is a first-generation immigrant; he takes control of his life as a small child by focusing on running; he runs in the Olympics; he is a bombardier in the Pacific theatre in the Second World War; his plane crashes not once but twice, and the second time the plane goes down in the Pacific and he survives. Then he survives in the middle of the ocean with only a tiger for company for like 45 days by literally catching sharks with his bare hands; he is finally rescued... by the Japanese; he is beaten; he is transferred to a POW camp in Tokyo where he is tormented by this crazy sadist named "the Bird", who has some kind of bizarre (erotic?) fascination with him; he appears on Japanese radio for some reason; he is then transferred to a new prison camp where he hauls coal; he lifts things above his head. (The poster, incidentally, really is iconic. I love it. Even if this movie never addresses anything approximating "redemption", whatever that is supposed to mean in this context.)

But all of that really happened to him, you might protest. Fine. But I am sure lots of other things happened to him, too. Like, I dunno, dancing with a girl for the first time, or learning to make gnocchi, or training to be a bombardier, or carrying his husband's blood around his neck in a vial. My point is that the film (of course it does) gets to choose what it shows us, and it chooses to show us all of the things that beggar belief. Even if they are all true, this compilation of events is not the same as a character study. Hillebrand and Jolie seem to believe that the fact that he made it through all of these events is a study of who the man is.

Garrett Hedlund: an unassuming bright spot in this movie
What it does to me, instead, is make him into a kind of superhuman figure, who represents resilience, unbrokenness (that old masculine preoccupation), triumph, even military victory, rather than being an actual human. We learn very little about Louie Zamperini himself, except that he is strong enough to take a punch.

There is plenty of sentiment here, too, and Unbroken is intended as a weeper: a deeply tearful story that makes us all hug our six children just a little tighter.

And now I imagine Louie getting back to his feet and looking at me with his clear, shallow eyes. See, in truth, this film is not really that much worse than the other big sentimental Oscar-bait movies of the year (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Rosewater). In fact, I think it's a bit better than them. It's beautifully shot, and much less boring than those movies, and it doesn't have nearly as many cliché phrases as those three films, and if Unbroken focuses, like Theory, Imitation, and Rosewater, on a young man who is assailed by things he simply doesn't deserve and a world in which he feels lost and misunderstood, Unbroken at least does not ask us to pity our protagonist from some position of audience superiority; the other films do that in spades.

Why did the Academy like Theory of Everything and Imitation Game so much more than it liked Rosewater and Unbroken? Honestly, I couldn't tell you. It all feels so arbitrary to me. But it might be this feeling of superiority that we are allowed as we look at Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking in this year's movies about their lives. Imitation Game and Theory of Everything are completely invested in the idea that their protagonists "really" want to be "just like us"; they're designed to make us feel better about ourselves. Unbroken wants us to try to be better, to work harder, to lift that motherfucking piece of wood over our heads. It's a ridiculous film, but in this way, at least, it asks so much more of its audience than its fellow Oscar-bait films this year. Somehow I bet that it will eventually make more money than those other two movies, too. Because when you punch Louie Zamperini, he just gets back up.