Unbroken (2014) / Drama-War
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
Running Time: 137 min.
Cast: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Takamasa Ishihara, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney
Director: Angelina Jolie
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson (based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand)
Review published December 26, 2014
Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 biography of Olympics runner and WWII prisoner of war Louis Zamperini (O'Connell, 300: Rise of an Empire) provides the basis for this war-time drama, directed by Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey), from an adaptation by the Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit), along with Richard LaGravenese (Water for Elephants, P.S. I Love You) and William Nicholson (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Les Miserables). If nothing else, Jolie has delivered a breathtakingly beautiful film visually, with some shots, delivered with consummate perfection by acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins (Prisoners, Skyfall), making the film feel truly transcendent, especially when coupled with the transfixing score by Alexandre Desplat (Godzilla, The Grand Budapest Hotel).
The film is essentially three different parts of one extraordinary life, starting with Zamperini's days as a runner in high school and in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. His rigorous conditioning and perseverance as a track star, as well as his childhood of being bullied and ridiculed by his peers for being Italian, gave him the fortitude to go the distance during his days in World War II as an Air Force bombardier whose plane is shot down, forcing him and fellow soldiers to have to survive in a life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for weeks. The final part of the story tells of his eventual capture and subsequent days of hard physical labor and abuse in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp run by the sadistic Mutsuhiro Watanabe (a solid debut by Japanese pop star Miyavi), aka 'the Bird' (because he can see and hear everything), who makes it his mission to break the spirited Olympic champ down.
Unbroken has garnered mixed reviews from a number of prominent critics, but I found it to be quite a beautiful, poignant and moving film throughout. Without accusing any of them of bias against Angelina Jolie as a filmmaker, they cite such things as the length 137-minute run time, and its grim subject matter, despite knowing that venerable critical darlings like The Deer Hunter are grimmer and longer. Others cite the overbearing religious symbolism, starting with his disinterest in church as a lad to his ultimately becoming a bit of a Christ figure of sorts (perhaps not a coincidence that the film found a Christmas Day release), as being a bit too overbearing, but I find it one of the more fascinating artistic flourishes, and it brings great relevance to Zamporini's life and dedication to his religious pursuits beyond the scope of the film. On the other side of the spectrum, faith-based film critics have been mixed because they feel that Jolie stripped out too much of the main character's faith from the piece. I guess one person's 'too much' is another's 'not enough' when it comes to religion in mainstream films.
If there's one thing that could have made a good film a great one, it would have been to imbue Zamperini with more character touches that would make him more of a man than as a symbol of endurance and perseverance under rigorous persecution and punishment. However, it still delivers a number of powerful moments, perhaps none more powerful than the end titles and pictures of the actual Zamporini, who would fulfill his promise to his faith of living an exemplary life of forgiveness and love for his enemies.
©2014 Vince Leo