Unbroken

Inciting Event: There isn’t a strong or obvious Inciting Event in the middle of this story’s First Act. Technically, we have to identify the Inciting Event as the moment when Louie and his fellow bomber crewman are sent out in the dilapidated plane on a search and rescue mission to find a downed plane and its crew. But this happens so late in the First Act that it’s practically a part of the First Plot Point.

As a result, the beginning is easily the weakest section of this (generally weak) structure. The First Act lacks focus in its narrative drive as it flounders through an ultimately irrelevant setup scene (showing a bombing run and near crash upon landing) and flashbacks of both Louie’s troubled boyhood and Olympic-caliber running as a young man.

Based solely on the timing, an argument could be made that the Inciting Event is the moment when Louie’s older brother convinces him he should do something with his life and become a runner. But this has little obvious relation to the main conflict.

First Plot Point: While out on the rescue mission, Louie’s plane crashes in the ocean. Only he, the pilot, and another man make it to the life rafts. This is a nice First Plot Point. It decidedly shoves the protagonist out of his (relatively) safe Normal World and into the traumatic new “adventure” world of the Second Act.

First Pinch Point: Louie and the others spend the First Half of the Second Act struggling to stay alive on the rafts, as months pass. The only obvious First Pinch Point during this segment is the moment when a Japanese plane flies over ahead, sees them hailing it, and shoots at them. They lose one of their two life rafts as a result. This is an emphasis of the antagonistic force, but it fails to turn the plot in any meaningful way.

Midpoint: Louie and the other surviving man are discovered and captured by the Japanese. This is the prominent shift between first half (surviving in the raft) and second half (surviving as POW) in this story. However, as the timing bears out, the true Midpoint of this story is the introduction of the main antagonist—sadistic prison commandment Watanabe, which happens several scenes later after Louie is transferred to Tokyo. As a result, this segment of the story also drifts a bit due to its loose structure.

Second Pinch Point: Louie is given the opportunity to speak to his family on the radio. He is told he can escape Watanabe and the camp and live in comfort in Tokyo if he will speak the propagandist speeches he is given. He refuses and is returned to the camp, where Watanabe orders all the Allied prisoners to punch Louie in the face.

On a surface level, this is a very nice and effective pinch point. But what it doesn’t truly do is turn the plot. The story continues on after the pinch point pretty much as it did before. Neither Louie’s or Watanabe’s actions change the rhythm or focus of the plot.

Third Plot Point: After experiencing a seeming victory when Watanabe is transferred to a different camp, Louie and his fellow prisoners are also transferred to the same camp. This might have been a much more effective Third Plot Point had we been made to feel that this turn of events was a true moment of despair for Louie: that he had been raised to hope by the false victory, only to be plunged even lower. As it is, it remains a pretty static turn of events: the plot plods on with just more of the same. The physical privations Louie undergoes are given extremely little emotional context.

Climax: Louie’s personal Climax comes after he has injured his ankle and is unable to effectively do his job hauling coal. Watanabe punishes him by forcing him to stand for hours with a heavy plank above his head. Louie perseveres and defiantly raises the plank as high as he can, which causes Watanabe to attack him (thus preventing Louie from being shot when he finally drops the plank).

The main Climax begins when it becomes obvious to the prisoners that the Allies are about to win the war and overtake Japan. They fear they will be shot if Japan surrenders.

Climactic Moment: The prisoners are told the war is over and are released to bathe in the river—without being shot.

Resolution: The prisoners receive food from the Allies. Louie finally returns home and reunites with his family.

Notes: The story of Louie Zamperini is an impressive and powerful one. But it’s this movie does little justice to it. Admittedly, it’s an extremely tough story to structure, since it features several prominent aspects that all need to be tied together: Louie’s past an Olympic runner, his time of survival on the raft, and finally his imprisonment. Basically, it’s three genres in one: sports, survival, and war.

Aside from the very random First Act that fails to make the sports angle pertinent (aside from the great line “if you can take it, you can make it”), the story does a pretty good job working all these angles into the structure (the Midpoint is the perfect place for it to shift gears between the survival and war modes).

The main problem here—and the reason the film is largely disappointing—is that it has no strong emotional through-line. We never see an obvious shift from reaction in the first half to action in the second. It’s true Louie is essentially forced into an inescapably reactive position throughout, but to create a truly inspirational film, the character’s mindset at least needs to be evolved.

Louie does get a Moment of Truth, in which he recalls his brothers advice about “if you can take it you can make it” and decides the best way to defeat the enemy is to survive the war. But this comes very late (it should occur at the Midpoint; here, it doesn’t occur until the Second Pinch Point) and has no obvious impact on anything Louie does in the story.

Bottom line: this is a heart story, yet we never get to see the heart of the main character.

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