Tonight's the night! So I had better get a move on...
The last two movies that are subjects for my Oscar preparation (and anticipation) are Selma and Unbroken. Now, I hasten to point out that Unbroken is not one of those nominated for Best Picture, or best director, or best actor, etc. In fact, it was only nominated for cinematography, sound mixing and sound editing. Of course those categories are very important for the people who work in those fields, but--frankly--I don't stay tuned for the winners.
So, why did I pick this pair to compare and contrast. Well, there are quite a few similarities. Both both are about real men, based in 20th century American history; both deal with men of uncommon valor, who have to deal with a presumption of racial superiority.
Unbroken focuses on the life of Louis Zamperini, Now, were it not for a best-selling book by author Laura Hillenbrand, Zamperini's life, beyond his youth, might have passed relatively unnoticed. Hillenbrand*, you may recall, is the author who wrote another story of resilience and triumph--Seabiscuit. Just as Seabiscuit was seen as fertile ground for making a movie, so was her book Unbroken. Even though the idea of making a movie about Zamperini's life had been kicking around Hollywood for decades, it was mostly likely Hillenbrand's book that jump-started it. Angelina Jolie, who directed it, had to fight--not to get the movie made, but to be selected to direct it.
After a childhood during which Zamperini was a bit of a miscreant, he discovered he had a talent for running. In fact, he became so accomplished that he was selected for the U.S. track team which went to the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, the ones infamous for Hitler's domination of the spectacle--and for Jesse Owens' amazing accomplishments as a track star that buried Hitler's notion of racial superiority. Owens won four gold medals--3 in sprint, and one in long jump. Zamperini was a distance runner participating in the 5,000 meter race. He didn't win any medal, but acquitted himself well with running the final lap in record time.
The connection that Zamperini has to 20th century American history was his service during World War II. He was a bombardier on the somewhat notorious B-24 bombers. These planes were known to be difficult to fly. In fact, the plane he was on was hit by gunfire during an aerial battle and badly damaged. Because of that, he and other crew members were sent to Hawaii to be reassigned. While they were waiting, a call came in to go on a rescue mission for another downed bomber. A crew of 11 was assembled and flew off in another B-24. During that mission, the plane he was on developed mechanical problems and went down in the Pacific near Palmyra Island. Thus began another great adventure of his life. He and his surviving crew mates lashed together several rafts and began drifting across the Pacific Ocean.
After 47 days of drifting in the Pacific, the raft washed up on Marshall Islands, then under control of the Japanese, some 1837 miles (2956 km,). The two remaining survivors were promptly captured by Japanese soldiers, thus beginning another "adventure." While the movie shows his early life, the youthful troubles he encountered, and his running triumphs, it concentrates on the drama of being adrift and the subsequent imprisonment in Japanese POW camps. During this time--about two years--he and other Allies were cruelly mistreated by prison guards, some of whom were particularly sadistic. One stand-out example, which the movie portrays very convincingly, was a guard the POWs called "The Bird." He took a particular dislike for Zamperini and never missed a chance to punish him. It is during these moments in the movie that the viewer experiences full force one of the elements that was evidenced in World War II. Just as the Germans presumed their superiority due to their "Aryan purity," Japanese soldiers felt superior to their captives whom they degraded and looked down on.
Zamperini's very survival is an indication of his uncommon valor. The movie ends before the final difficulty of his life; Zamperini experienced one other challenge that threatened his survival. Upon his return home after the war, he began to drink heavily. His life was turned around after his wife begged him to go hear the evangelist Billy Graham. Based on the message Zamperini heard, he realized he needed to change his life--and he did. Beyond that, he absorbed a central element of Christian thinking--that of the need for forgiveness, even of one's enemies. Zamperini eventually returned to Japan, and sought out his former captors with the specific intent to forgive them.
Martin Luther King, Jr., the subject of the movie Selma, is far better known to most Americans than is Zamperini. Given that familiarity, there is less need to underscore the initially stated similarities: the two stories are about real men, are based on 20th century American history, both deal with men of uncommon valor, and both deal with a presumption of racial superiority. We know many of the basics of Dr. King's life--his rise to leadership in the infancy of the civil rights movement. In fact, the movie Selma distills many of the details in a single event--the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
Following the Civil War, African-Americans were systematically and routinely deprived of many of the rights the Civil War was intended to help them gain. Chief among those was the foundational right of our democracy: the right to vote. African-Americans were required to register to vote--as we all are today--but for them, the finish line was a moving target. The movie powerfully portrays this in an event involving Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey). She tries to register to vote, only to be asked a series of questions which she admirably and confidently answers. Then one last question is thrown at her, one so trivial as to be absurd. Not surprisingly she cannot answer, so her application is stamped DENIED.
To redress this and other grievances, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. King are brought in to Selma to try to galvanize action. Part of the drama of the movie also focuses on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which included John Lewis, which had been trying for three years to move voter registration forward. The means to move voter registration rights forward was to organize a march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, which begins by crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge.
(credit for photo of the Pettus bridge-- "Edmund Pettus Bridge 03" by Carol M. Highsmith)
The history of this time is fresh to many of us who were adults--albeit young adults--during the 1960s. Its retelling is essential for younger generations to know that the right to vote was hard won for African Americans.
Other elements of Dr. King's life are woven into the movie--not always in full detail, but enough to give a sense of the man's life, including some of the sadder aspects. We know that the FBI maintained a file on him, that the then director J. Edgar Hoover seemed to make a special point of spying on Dr. King. We also know that Dr. King was unfaithful to his wife in a way that very nearly destroyed his marriage. All these elements are in the movie.
What we see is only a glimpse of is his uncommon valor. We don't see much of time spent in jail--where Dr. King was too often sentenced for his pursuit of basic rights for Americans. We don't see many of his speeches where the possibility of rioting and destruction was all too present. We don't see his death at the hands of a white assassin.
What we do see graphically portrayed is the visceral deep-seated hatred that too many whites displayed against Africa-Americans. There are very few examples in the movie of whites who were moved to join this basic civil rights fight. But there some.
So, where do the movies differ? Apart from the understandable differences of stories being told about two different men being portrayed, perhaps the singular difference is in the length of their lives. Louis Zamperini, born in 1917, died very recently in mid-2014. Dr. King who was born in 1929 was assassinated in 1968. And, of course, neither of the deaths feature in the movies.
The movies share one more common aspect--both have been controversial in that challenges were raised to the ways in which the stories were told, and how faithfully history was represented. Some evangelical Christians were upset that Unbroken ended before Zamperini's life-changing encounter with Christianity. And Selma has been controversial in the elements of history either omitted, or recast. There were many more nuances to the civil rights campaign--and at times the movie truncated those events. What has received more press has been the way President Lyndon Johnson was portrayed--as reluctant to get into the civil rights campaign.
A far better treatment of the way these two movies tell history is dealt with by my fellow blogger (and longtime friend) in her blog post: "Pondering History, Torture and Violence." I commend it to you.
OK--now, off you go. Watch the Academy Awards. And afterwards I just might tell you if I picked any winners.
*Laura Hillenbrand has her own story of struggle and resilience. While she was a student in college, she experienced a sudden debilitating weakness that was eventually diagnosed as being caused by chronic fatigue syndrome. Her life has been marked by her ups and downs with this disease. But despite the severe limitations it places on her life, she has managed to become a successful author.