It’s difficult to not be impressed by the story told in Unbroken, given the incredible man whose life is featured in the film. Even if director Angelina Jolie’s choices feel a little safe and if Louis Zamperini’s story feels too compressed, the film adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller still manages to tell an emotionally moving and inspirational tale that honors the man who actually survived the events that unfold onscreen.
Jolie’s film zooms through Louis’ childhood, showing the future Olympian as a juvenile delinquent who found redemption on the track. Louis’ brother taught him the mantra that would guide his life – “If you can take it, you can make it” – and those words kept him going not only as he raced past opponents on the track but also as he clung to life in shark-infested waters and in Japanese prisoner of war camps.
Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces a few months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and a few years after competing in the Olympics. He was a bombardier carrying out missions in the Pacific when his plane was badly shot up and a few crew members were killed. Zamperini and the remaining crew were then given a rickety old B-24 and tasked with attempting to locate a plane that had gone missing. Unfortunately, the B-24 with Zamperini and his buddies onboard experienced mechanical failures and went down in the ocean, with three surviving crew members – Louis (played by Jack O’Connell), Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), and Mac (Finn Wittrock) – battling starvation, sharks, the elements, and a lack of drinking water in the open ocean. After 47 days adrift, two crew members remained alive and were picked up by a Japanese ship, ultimately ending up at different prisoner of war camps.
Louis was immediately singled out for abuse by the sadistic Japanese prison guard “The Bird” Watanabe (played by Japanese pop star Takamasa “Miyavi” Ishihara) who tortured him and even forced his fellow prisoners to engage in brutal attacks on the gaunt and physically weakened Zamperini. Only his inner strength and the support of his fellow prisoners kept Louis from dying in the camps, and as is demonstrated in this feature film from writers Richard LaGravenese and the Coen Brothers, Louis’ spirit remained unbroken.
The Bottom Line:
British actor Jack O’Connell tackles the lead role of Louis Zamperini and does so convincingly. American audiences are probably, for the most part, unaware of O’Connell’s other work but to see just how much O’Connell transformed for this role, watch the indie thriller Starred Up (also released in 2014) for comparison. O’Connell’s earnest portrayal of an American hero is both heartbreaking and intense. Equally as intense are the performances of O’Connell co-occupants of the floating raft, Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock. Gleeson’s quietly and steadily compiling an impressive filmography while Wittrock’s currently mesmerizing audiences as the psychotic “Dandy Mott” in American Horror Story: Freak Show. Also delivering a stellar performance is Miyavi who’s terrific and terrifying as Louis’ chief tormentor.
Jolie’s obviously been paying attention on sets and has a keen eye for staging the dialogue-driven scenes. The action scenes are also well done, and Jolie made the smart choice of snagging Roger Deakins to shoot Unbroken as the cinematography is gorgeous and lush, perfectly capturing both the war scenes as well as Zamperini’s youth in California back in the 1930s.
The most intriguing interactions in the film are between Zamperini and The Bird, as they engage in a bizarre and at times puzzling relationship as victim and captor, as the tortured and the torturer that occasionally surprises the audience by allowing the briefest of moments when Watanabe – who was promoted to Sergeant despite his sadistic tendencies – lets his prized prisoner glimpse the reasons why he is so capable of brutality against his enemy.
While Unbroken doesn’t quite have the urgency to it that you’d want, it does portray the tortures of war albeit while not in enough detail to lose the film’s PG-13 rating. Unbroken leaves the audience wanting to know more about the amazing and brave man who endured these horrors and was not only able to go on to live a full life but had it in his heart to forgive those who put him through such agony. The end scene of the real Zamperini shows he not only survived but thrived, and Unbroken‘s a fitting tribute to his incredible life.
Unbroken is rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language.
Running Time: 137 minutes
-By Rebecca Murray
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