Unbroken Features an Incredible Story of Success and Survival
Review by Daniel Rester
Louis Zamperini did enough in his lifetime to warrant five films to be made about him. Instead we get one superb movie called Unbroken, with Angelina Jolie at the helm in her second directorial effort. The film, based on the nonfiction book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, showcases the parts of Zamperini’s life that took place both immediately before and during WWII – with a bit of childhood flashbacks thrown in for story purposes as well.
Zamperini is played here by Jack O’Connell, a star in the making who also starred in this year’s overlooked Starred Up. That’s a lot of “stars.” Jolie’s film – which was co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen and two other writers – begins with Zamperini as a bombardier flying with his crew over the Pacific Ocean; the crew also includes Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), Mac (Finn Wittrock), and Cup (Jai Courtney).
We also see Zamperini as he makes poor decisions as a child before turning his life around by committing to running track. This commitment eventually landed him at the 1936 Olympics for the 5000-meter distance event. But the core of the film shows how Zamperini survived at sea for 47 days after a plane crash and then landed in a Japanese POW camp. The camp was run by Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Miyavi), a young soldier with sights on leadership and a determination to break Zamperini’s spirit.
Unroken features one of the more incredible true stories to come around in a film for a while. The many facets of Zamperini’s story provide for looks at determination, faith, adventure, respect, opportunity, struggle, and more. It’s a film with such a rich and inspirational story that it’s hard not to respect Zamperini when all is said and done, though Jolie’s movie might not be perfect.
The film does present Zamperini with flaws as a child, but I wish Jolie showed more of his imperfections as an adult as well. Instead the struggles mostly come from the outside, with Zamperini particularly put to the test by “The Bird.” With this central focus, a lot of the well-casted supporting characters are put on the back burner development-wise compared to Zamperini and “The Bird.” This includes John Fitzgerald (Garrett Hedlund), an American soldier Zamperini meets in the camp. Jolie applies a bit too much focus on moments of suffering in the second half as well, making Unbroken feel repetitive and long at times; a few more conversations between characters in place of some of the beatings might have been a wiser choice.
Little issues aside though, Unroken rises up as an exciting and memorable film in my eyes. Some of my colleagues said it felt a little too forced and sentimental to them, comparing it to recent films like War Horse (2011) and The Butler (2013). But I found that the film was much better than those pictures, being less melodramatic and handling its story transitions in a smoother fashion. Does the film hold its subject in a glossy way sometimes? Yes, but it never felt saccharin-covered to me like those previous pictures did – instead providing more grit with its moments of emotional true story punches.
O’Connell carries Unbroken through its occasional missteps, giving a performance with heart and strength to spare. Miyavi (a musician making his acting debut) is just as incredible as O’Connell, with the two actors showing how greatly Zamperini and “The Bird” affected each other. The two men were enemies, but they also seemed to understand and respect each other in ways. This provides for some interesting complexity in observing the master-versus-prisoner dynamic at hand. Jolie and O’Connell also smoothly show how religious faith made its way into Zamperini’s life as he faced his struggles — with some thought-provoking juxtaposition presented early on between Phil and Zamperini highlighting this.
As good as O’Connell and the rest of the cast is, it’s the amazing and epic story presented that is really the star. Jolie and her team beautifully and meticulously recreate the times and places the story is set in, but none of the technical aspects try to take over the spotlight either; the cinematography by the great Roger Deakins and the rousing music by Alexander Desplat are things one can greatly admire though. Whether it’s showing an aerial combat sequence, a high-speed footrace, a fight against a shark, or a quiet moment of tension between two characters, Jolie handles Unbroken with a sure hand.
Early on in Unbroken a character says, “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” Zamperini certainly made it through much pain and later received the deserved glory. The saying and the film itself made me think about the hardships some humans go through in order to achieve success or just survive altogether. At the same time Jolie’s picture left me on the edge of my seat. So, Unbroken is both exciting and thought-provoking while being wrapped with filmmaking professionalism. In other words it’s one of the best films of the year from my standpoint.
Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A).
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language).
Runtime: 2 hours and 17 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: December 25th, 2014.