Film Review: Unbroken

by Carrie Kahn on December 25, 2014

Fierce performances, incredible true story balance picture’s limited scope

After 47 days adrift at sea, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Louis (Jack O’Connell) have the additional misfortune of being rescued by a Japanese war ship.

Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s popular book of the same name, Unbroken boasts impressive credentials: directed by Angelia Jolie and co-written by none other than the Coen Brothers, the movie generated much pre-release buzz. While the film succeeds immensely as a riveting survival tale, it often feels a little repetitive and one-note.

Of course, when your protagonist lives to be 97, as did Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), the American Olympic runner and World War II Air Force pilot whose true story the film tells, you have to make some directorial choices, since you can’t fit an entire 97-year lifetime into one two-hour film. Jolie’s primary focus, then, is on Zamperini’s extraordinary experiences during a two-year period during the war. On a rescue mission over the Pacific, Zamperini’s plane crashes, and he survives 47 days on a raft, only to be captured by the Japanese Navy and held as a prisoner of war under unfathomably brutal conditions.

What Zamperini endures – first on the raft with two other crash survivors (Finn Wittrock and Domhnall Gleeson), and then at the hands of The Bird, a sadistic prison camp commander (chillingly played by Japanese pop star Miyavi) who has it in for him, to put it mildly, is so horrific as to be almost beyond comprehension. Let’s just say that whatever travails you may be going through right now will look pretty damn trivial compared to what Zamperini experiences here. Indeed, Jolie’s film plays less like a World War II genre piece such as Fury or Saving Private Ryan, and much more like an unbelievable survival story in the vein of 127 Hours or All is Lost; it has the same head-shaking, jaw-dropping, utterly gripping pull on the viewer. There are any number of moments in the film where you might think, “I would have just given up and died right then,” but Zamperini doesn’t. And doesn’t. And doesn’t. And so on and so on and so on; the film almost becomes an endurance test in itself. Zamperini remains – ahem – unbroken – but you may not.

Japanese army sergeant Watanabe – AKA The Bird – (Miyavi), has it in for American POW prisoner Louis (Jack O’Connell).

Narratively, the film is a little too neat; flashbacks establish Zamperini as a troubled kid whose older brother encourages him to turn his life around by joining the track team, where he has much success – enough to make it to the 1936 Olympics. The notion of one moment of pain being worth a lifetime of glory becomes a constant refrain, and the film implies that Zamperini’s will to survive was shaped largely by his brother’s fierce encouragement and the competitive streak he developed through running.

One thing Jolie wisely did, however, was cast unknowns in the two lead parts; instead of projecting a pre-conceived idea on to the characters because of a familiar face, the viewer instead can more fully appreciate and the characters free of any sort of predetermined association. British actor O’Connell and Japanese pop star Miyavi, in his first role, both handle their tasks well; their chemistry and scenes together are raw and breathtaking in their veracity. Supporting players Wittrock (who bears a striking resemblance to the young Brad Pitt – go figure, Angie?), Gleeson, and even young C.J. Valleroy (who plays Louis as a boy) also turn in masterfully layered, emotionally rich performances.

In the end, then, what Jolie gives us is a stunningly compelling portrait of resilience and fortitude; Zamperini’s drive to survive in the face of such abject horror is beyond impressive, and is a remarkable testament to the power of the human spirit. Indeed, knowing as we do that Zamperini went on to live for over 65 more years, though, limiting his story to such a small, albeit incredible, period of time, is somewhat disappointing. The film fails to show us even a little of his post-war healing, growth, and path to forgiveness, which, no doubt, would make an equally inspiring story (a few sentences on screen at the film’s end serve as a final, unsatisfying postscript). Sequel, anyone?

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Unbroken opens today at Bay Area theaters.

 

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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