Sunday, November 11, 2012

Who needs fiction when you have stories like this: a review of "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand

Why I read this book:

Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" hardly needs an introduction. The author who brought us the story of Seabiscuit came back to the New York Times Bestsellers List with a real-life tale of "a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption" about a son of Italian immigrants who ran track for the United States in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and suffered unimaginable horrors in the Pacific theater in the struggle against imperial Japan. "Unbroken" became a number one bestseller and was a smash success among the reading public. After a couple of friends raved about the book, I decided to hand Amazon some more of my money.

My rating for this book:

1. Like fouling a pitch off your foot into the catcher's mitt - painful, embarrassing, and detrimental to the team.
2. Like hitting into a double play with one out and a runner on third.
3. A solid single up the middle.
4. A triple to round out the cycle. 
5. A grand slam (against the Yankees).


There is really not much to analyze here. This book is a classic definition of a page-turner: it enthralls the reader with a gripping, powerful story, yet it is easy to read and difficult to put down. This book is clearly going to be made into a blockbuster movie. Thus, the pressing question of the day is: who is going to play the lead character, Louis Zamperini?

 In order to convey Zamperini's personality and to determine which actor is best suited to play him, I have to summarize the book. Warning: this is a total SPOILER ALERT! Skip the next paragraph if you are going to pick up "Unbroken", and you feel the summary may ruin your reading experience. Truth be told, however, the appeal of this book hardly depends on preserving the mystery of the story; my summary does littlle more than expand on the full title of the book.

Louis Zamperini was a troublesome youth, uninterested in school, and always brawling, stealing, and getting into trouble. After discovering a knack for running, Zamperini channeled his tenacity into the sport and eventually reached elite levels, representing USA in the Berlin Olympics, before the outbreak of World War II cut short a promising and still blossoming running career. Zamperini became a bombardier in the Air Force and joined the fight in the Pacific against the Japanese. The real drama of the story begins when Zamperini's plane crashes over the Pacific Ocean. Zamperini faces weeks of starvation, dehydration, and sharks on a life raft, miraculously surviving being stranded in the middle of the ocean, only to be captured by the Japanese and subjected to unspeakably inhumane acts of cruelty in internment camps.

Louis Zamperini

In order to bring the drama of the story to the big screen, our actor needs to personify the following characteristics:

1. Sinewy toughness - I know, what in the world is that? I just made that up. This character trait calls for a man who can play the outsider, his outbursts of violence and bad behavior a glimpse of an adolescent who has trouble fitting in. Someone who can portray a "bad boy" as a troubled soul with a lack of direction rather than a tough bully who knows his strength. Sorry, Vin Diesel.

2.  A likable loser with the opposite sex - Zamperini was endlessly chasing girls, with about the same success ratio as someone who spends his time writing blogs. He does end up getting THE girl - not that it matters for the movie; the script would have a love story no matter what. After all, that is how they sold us "Titanic" and "Pearl Harbor", is it not? We have just lost Brad Pitt - the man is way too smooth for this job.

3. Emotionally resonant - seriously, what does that even mean!? It means that we have lost Josh Hartnett. We need someone to demonstrate the horror of war and the brutality of prisoner of war camps. We need someone who can bear the torch of the resilience of the human spirit in places where humanity ceases  to exist. We need someone who can withstand endless suffering, from without and from within, and who can somehow find his way to forgiveness and an inner peace. We need someone who can help this nation re-discover the founding principles in these turbulent times.

Candidate 1: Leonardo DiCaprio

Do not be fooled by the "Titanic" - Leo can be a total badass.

1. Toughness - I have to give it to Leo. He may look like a total wuss, but the guy is a terrific actor. His gutsy attitude gives his characters that "sinewy" aspect of the toughness that we are looking for.

2. A likable loser with the opposite sex - I know what you are thinking: "Leo could never not be a dreamboat. He has great hair, and he would be a great father to my children". That is true. Ladies love Leo, and he loves them back. However, if there is one thing that life taught me, it is that it does not take much for a man to ruin his chances with a woman. You may be pitching a perfect game all night, then you make one joke about "legitimate rape" or "transvaginal ultrasound", and all of the sudden you find yourself alone, the remains of her martini trickling down your face. I am sure we could tinker with the script a bit to make even Leo seem mortal.
3. Emotional resonance - Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the few actors who connects to both sexes on a deeper level. Both men and women would be captivated and react empathetically to, say, Leo's musings about his inattentive father.

Candidate 2: Jake Gyllenhaal

Is it me, or does Gyllenhaal look exactly like Zamperini in real life?

1. Toughness - Jake is excellent at portraying the regular guy, be he from rural Nebraska or from the Jersey suburbs. You can easily relate to him as one of your friends or someone you know. Eric Church, a country singer, has a line in the song "Guys like me" that I think captures the American philosophy on toughness: "I don't like to fight, but I ain't afraid to bleed". Jake is a natural to represent that philosophy.

2. A likable loser with the opposite sex - "Hey baby, you must be tired because you have been running through my mind all day long". Something like that. You get the point - it would not be difficult to bring a Mr. Hearthrob down to Earth if we had him throw out a couple of gems like that.

3. Emotional resonance - I always marvel at how the best actors such as Tom Hanks are able to convey the complexity of the human soul through meek, plain, and otherwise unnoticeable characters. I think Jake would surprise you and demonstrate his range here.

Candidate 3: Adrian Brody

Adrian Brody is so frail, I subconsciously hold my breath when I look at this picture for fear of breaking him.

1. Toughness - ok, I am taking a huge leap of faith here. The man is the opposite of tough - the mere mention of his name conjures images of organic soap, water with cucumbers in it (surprisingly delicious, by the way), and newborn infants wrapped in soft blankets. The dude has a chihuahua, for crying out loud! Have you seen those things? They are always shivering, and they pee in a litter box, like a cat. Proposing that Adrian be cast for a role that requires toughness is a preposterous venture, but hey - if we can make Leo DiCaprio seem unappealing to women, I am sure we can work another miracle. My gut does tell me that Brody is a talented actor who will pleasantly surprise the audiences in this role.

2. A likable loser with the opposite sex - "Do you have any Italian in you? Want some?" - then, just as you begin to feel disgust for the hound dog, Adrian can unleash his acting talents to demonstrate his ability to persevere and to eventually find true love.

3. Emotional resonance - Adrian is off the charts in this category. He invokes nurturing feelings in people - he seems to always be shivering (like a chihuahua), and that is before he gets into a role that truly demonstrates his capacity to exude frailty and sensitivity as he did in the "Pianist".

I would personally love to see the studios take a chance on Adrian Brody on this one although I am certain Leo and Jake would do an excellent job as well.

Note: This blog uses images that may be subject to copyright. I do not own these images. That is probably a good thing - it would be weird if I owned images of Adrian Brody holding chihuahuas. One week of that as my wallpaper is plenty. I use these images with full appreciation and respect for those who do own these images. Please do not sue me. If you do choose to pursue legal action, know this:
1. You are a d**k.
2. My closing argument will include me pounding on the docket and screaming: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!!" 


  1. I think the Note was the best part! And I agree - the book was awesome.

  2. The story is captivating, indeed, but I wasn't blown away by the writing. I didn't read Seabiscuit so I don't have a point of comparison, but my sense is her knack is in finding great stories, not so much in writing them down. It's been a while since i read it, but my memory is that it was a bit draggy and repetitive in spots and didn't elaborate on some of the things i thought were extremely interesting. Maybe the information was lacking, but I wanted to know more about life after returning and the Olympics. His thoughts or people who were close to him. I also remember a lot of cliched passages. It didn't take away from the incredible story, though. I am now out of energy for commenting.