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The (Un)fortunate Timing Of 'Unbroken'

Sari Edelstein: It is difficult to swallow an easy binary between American freedom and totalitarian abuses when the film’s release occurred just weeks after the disclosure of the Senate report on CIA torture. Pictured: Jack O'Connell portrays Olympian and war hero Louis "Louie" Zamperini in a scene from "Unbroken." (Universal Pictures/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Sari Edelstein: It is difficult to swallow an easy binary between American freedom and totalitarian abuses when the film’s release occurred just weeks after the disclosure of the Senate report on CIA torture. Pictured: Jack O'Connell portrays Olympian and war hero Louis "Louie" Zamperini in a scene from "Unbroken." (Universal Pictures/AP)

The top opener at the box office this Christmas was Angelina Jolie’s "Unbroken," raking in $15.59 million on its first day. According to Forbes, that’s the third-biggest Christmas Day debut ever, behind "Les Miserables" and "Sherlock Holmes." "Unbroken" tells the real-life story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete-turned World War II bombardier who survives 45 days at sea after a plane crash, only to end up in a Japanese prisoner camp. The screenplay, written by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, is marketed as a story of “survival, resilience and redemption.”

But the movie might better be described as a tale of relentless torture and trauma, as Zamperini endures ritualistic beatings, starvation and various other physical and emotional abuses. "Unbroken" is a masochistic movie-going experience, far from the feel-good fare one typically expects of the holiday season, but eerily resonant in a political climate dominated by news of abuses of power from local to international levels of American law enforcement.

'Unbroken' is ... eerily resonant in a political climate dominated by news of abuses of power from local to international levels of American law enforcement.

In one scene, Zamperini is forced to hold a wooden beam over his head, threatened that he will be shot if he drops it. The image of his gaunt torso and outstretched arms, reminiscent of a scene from "Twelve Years a Slave," is blatantly Christ-like, and indeed, the film is very much a conversion narrative; Zamperini became devoutly Christian after his return to the United States.

More than Christianity though, the film’s dominant ideology is American exceptionalism, or what Hollywood likes to call patriotism. Zamperini’s story — the rise from a hard-working Italian American family to Olympic track star to war hero — is a familiar narrative of individualist ascent. Indeed, Zamperini’s embrace of America is so complete that when given the chance to make a radio broadcast in exchange for food and an end to his abuse, he refuses to make anti-American announcements on the air. He is subsequently returned to the camp for even more intense torture.

At the film’s conclusion, Zamperini kisses the ground when his plane finally lands on American soil. We are asked to feel relief that he has at long last returned to a humane state, a nation that fights against fascists and war criminals.

But it is difficult to swallow this easy binary between American freedom and totalitarian abuses when the film’s release occurred just weeks after the disclosure of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, which detailed the horrific techniques used against prisoners at the U.S. Detention Center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Senate report describes how prisoners are forced to stand for hours, deprived of sleep for days, and assaulted with harsh lights and loud music, along with other assaults to body and mind that are every bit as gruesome as those depicted in "Unbroken."

“You are enemies of Japan,” the Japanese guard known as “the Bird” repeatedly tells the POWs. The film works to demonize and orientalize “the Bird” as a pathological villain: his favored method of abuse is his bamboo cane, an implement that shores up his status as supremely Other. The characterization of “the Bird” fosters the underlying premise that he is a symbol of what we are fighting against in the name of freedom and democracy.

As families sit in multiplexes, white-knuckling it for the film’s relentless two hour duration, it behooves us to remember that torture is not the way of other countries or other times; it is in fact the American way now.

Unlike Zamperini and his fellow military combatants, many of the prisoners at Guantanamo are not convicted enemies of the United States. Angelina Jolie, the film’s director, is a vocal opponent of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the Senate report details, so perhaps rather than view "Unbroken" as a saccharine love letter to America, we might consider it in the tradition of the American jeremiad, a sermon that laments the current state of society and calls for a return to intention and ideals.

As families sit in multiplexes, white-knuckling it for the film’s relentless two hour duration, it behooves us to remember that torture is not the way of other countries or other times; it is in fact the American way now. Zamperini may have been “unbroken,” but the closing credits note that he endured years of severe post-traumatic stress disorder. In other words, there were lasting and unspecified physical and emotional consequences for the torturous treatment he received. We might see "Unbroken" not merely as a celebration of one man’s spirit but as a reminder of how far we have fallen from our ideals, a call to be a nation that respects all human rights even and especially in times of war.

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Sari Edelstein Cognoscenti contributor
Sari Edelstein, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is the author of "Between the Novel and the News: The Emergence of American Women's Writing."

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