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UNBROKEN (2014) review

January 3, 2015

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written by: Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson
produced by: Angelina Jolie, Matthew Baer, Erwun Stoff & Clayton Townsend
directed by: Angelina Jolie
rating: PG-13 (for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and brief language)
runtime: 137 min.
U.S. release date: December 25, 2014

 

Former Olympic track star and WWII hero, Louis “Louie” Zamperini, tried for decades to get a film of his life story of survival and resilience off the ground. Universal had acquired the rights to it back in the 50s, but it didn’t actually get green lit until writer Laura Hillenbrand landed a nonfiction bestseller in 2010 with Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, her dense account of his story. Four screenwriters worked on an adaptation and Angelina Jolie took on the project as “Unbroken” became her second directorial feature. Somehow though, everyone involved forgot the “redemption” part of the book’s subtitle opted instead to focus on the harrowing and events of the resilient Zamperini’s survival. That’s a shame, since the real amazing story is the eventual forgiveness he embraces.

“Unforgiven” opens in April 1943, with Louie (Jack O’Connell) serving as a bombardier in the United States Air Force aboard a B24 bomber flying above Naura, a Japanese occupied island in the South Pacific. The suspense of the mission in enemy territory is palpable, with Louie and his fellow crew members, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), Mac (Finn Wittrock) and Hugh (Jai Courtney), scrambling to keep their craft together. The production value is immediately noticeable; with it’s crisp cinematography of Richard Deakins (outstanding, as always), the jolting sound design and the stirring score by Alexandre Desplat (a busy man in 2014), as the plane takes fire and crew members are badly injured.

 

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Then the story shifts to Louie as a boy (C.J. Valleroy) in 1920’s Torrence, California, where he’s raised by Italian immigrant parents, often subjected to bullying and ridicule because of his heritage. Not thinking much of himself, Louie received encouragement from his older brother, Pete (John D’Leo), who suggests Louie focus on running, since he was so good and running from the local police. He does just that, as the story shifts once again, to find Louie has become a champion track runner, working his way to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin where he sets impressive records.

War broke out, which saw Louie and his brother enlisted and brings us back to 1943, reuniting us with his surviving crew members on a different bomber on a different mission. The engines fail and the plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean, leaving Louie (whom his pals called “Zamp”) adrift at sea with Phil and Mac for 47 days. During this time Louie vows to the heavens that if he survives he will serve God the rest of his days. Through perilous weather and little supplies, Louie does his best to keep morale afloat on their two rafts, surviving on raw fish, an occasional gull as they dodge strafing from enemy planes above and fend off shark attacks from below.

At near death and with only one other crew member including himself, Louie’s raft is rescued by a Japanese ship and becomes a prisoner of war. He’s thrown into a prisoner camp outside of Tokyo, run by a cruel and mad Imperial Army Sergeant, Matsushiro Watanabe, whom the prisoners call The Bird (played by Japanese rock star, Miyavi), who learning of Louie’s Olympic athlete past, sets out to physically and mentally break him at every turn. Louie keeps his brother’s credo in mind, “if you can take it, you can make it” in order to persevere and inspire others in the camp, such as John Fitzgerald (Garrett Hedlund) to have faith they will live. Indeed, many of them, including Louie, do survive and are released once the war ends after Tokyo is bombed.

 

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Louie is soon reunited with his family back in the States, because we know he survives in order to tell his daunting story. But what becomes most interesting about Louie is what happens after the war, something Jolie has us read on the screen just before the end credits. We learn in a handful of sentences that Louie overcame PTSD and alcoholism and become true to his promise of serving God. What’s more impressive is how Louie decided to forgive his captors by actually traveling back to Japan and meet with them. All except The Bird, who refused to see Louie. Learning all this about Louie’s post-war life is the real amazing story.

We know war is horrific, being lost at sea is grueling and life in prison camp is agonizing. All three of these traumatizing events have been captured on film since the medium was invented, specifically tales of survival tales. The fact that Zamperini, or anyone for that matter, endures and survives such tragedies is incredible, but a survivor’s story never ends once they have finished their ordeal. What can be even more noteworthy is how they deal with the psychological toll of it all once they assimilate back to the life they once knew.

 

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In Louie’s case, one particular Bill Graham event he attended with his wife impacted him tremendously. The evangelist spoke about forgiveness and how a lack of forgiveness in one’s life only damages that individual. That’s powerful, life-changing and timeless to cover in any story, but Jolie and the screenwriters really missed out on an opportunity to bring something completely different to this genre. I was shocked and mad that there was a decision to sum up Louie’s unprecedented act of forgiveness in what is essentially a slideshow. That decision is disappointing and actually kind of disrespectful to the full life Louie had after all that he endured.

While the strong lead performance by O’Connell is powerful (you should really check him out in the recent “Starred Up”), his Zamperini is more of a symbol than a real character. Rarely are we taken inside his head or see him struggle with depression or doubt like so many around him. Despite O’Connell and his co-stars physically transforming into rail thin skeletons to depict life at sea and in camp, (although, I found it a little odd that the facial hair they grew looked somewhat manicured) “Unbroken” finds Jolie hitting all too familiar beats. The one-dimensional portrayal of The Bird became grating and annoying, relegating the character to The Villain, frustrated and envious of Zamperini, but nothing more. Sadly, our protagonist is equally one-dimension here as well.

Ultimately the film is a missed opportunity, cheating viewers from a complete and truly remarkable story of a multi-dimensional man who was more than just a symbol of strength and resilience. “Unbroken” shouldn’t have ended where it did and could be appropriately retitled as “Unfinished”.

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RATING: **

 

 

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