The story of Louis Zamperini – from kid on the wrong path to Olympic athlete to surviving forty-seven days adrift in the Pacific Ocean to Japanese POW (and recipient of far worse than merely tortuous treatment – is one so improbable that it comfortably fits every possible definition of both heroism and ‘you can’t make that stuff up!”
Despite a story so inspiring that Angelina Jolie made the movie almost through sheer force of will, Unbroken – based on the Zamperini biography by Lauren Hillenbrand – is pretty much a straightforward war movie. It suffers from prosaic direction and, in places stone cold drags.
Unbroken opens with Louis (Jack O’Connell) in a B-24 bomber on a run. As the mission encounters opposition, we shift back and forth from the mission to following young Louie (C.J. Valleroy) as he races away from a policeman; stashes stolen items and change; drinks nicked booze concealed in a bottle painted to look like it’s full of milk and refusing to stay down when four bullies pound him. The younger son of Italian immigrant parents, he has a chip on his shoulder the size of a two-by-four.
When he runs across a school field, his brother, Pete (John D’Leo) realizes he’s faster than the track team on the field and persuades him to go out for the track team – a movie that leads him to the Berlin Olympics of 1938, where he doesn’t medal but is the highest-placing American runner.
Though the mission is successful, the plane is badly damaged by enemy fire and barely makes it home – any landing you can walk away from…
Then, on a routine rescue mission, on a plane that’s cobbled together from pieces of other planes, Louie and his crew crash into the Pacific. He and two others – pilot Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) gunner Mac (Finn Wittrock) – survive and spend forty-seven days (and what feels like a third of the movie) on a couple of lashed together life rafts with no food, no water and under constant threat from sharks.
As this section stretches on, we feel like yelling at the screen, ‘We get it! Middle of the Pacific. No Food. No water. Sharks! We get it!’ On the plus side, when the two survivors – Louie and Phil – are ‘rescued’ by the Japanese, we get what has to be the most inspired use of a classic line in cinematic history.
Now, as bad as things had been, they get worse quickly. Louie seems to run the commander of the Japanese POW camp, Corporal Watanabe (Miyavi) the wrong way from the moment of his arrival and is singled out for the most abusive treatment of anyone in the camp.
Throughout Unbroken, Louie keeps Pete’s encouragement ‘If you can take, you can make it’ in mind – and always, he behaves with honor and courage. When he is sent to Tokyo to address America in a Japanese propaganda broadcast, he insists on only using his own words. After his broadcast, he is offered the opportunity to stay in Tokyo if he will read prepared scripts. When he refuses to lie to bolster Japan’s propaganda, he is sent back to the camp.
Things get worse than ever.
Once past the seemingly interminable lost at sea sequence, Jolie regains her sense of pacing and Unbroken moves at a good clip. She also does a good job of showing enough Japanese brutality to show Louie’s treatment but not go too far and alienating her audience. In fact, a lot of the violence happens offscreen or in carefully constructed backlit moments in which we see the violence as through a semi-opaque curtain.
Ultimately, though, it’s the performances that give Unbroken the lift it needs. O’Connell and Miyavi (best known as a Japanese pop star) are brilliant as O’Connell’s Louie takes everything Watanabe (nicknamed The Bird by his prisoners) can dish out and Watanabe slowly realizes that nothing he can do – short of killing Louie – will ever break him.
Supporting performances – especially from Gleeson, Wittrock, Garrett Hedlund and, kind of surprisingly, Jai Courtney – are also extremely good. They make their characters feel like real people despite being given very little to work with.
Probably the most inspiring moments of the film come when news footage of Louie carrying the torch for one leg at the Olympic Games in Japan – not far from where he had been a POW.
Despite its flaws, Unbroken is still a very good movie and to see it anywhere other than on the big screen would be to miss – or badly dilute – the power it does have.
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Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures