UNBOWED, UNBENT, UNBROKEN
Through the years of moviemaking, Hollywood has produced a good number of dramatized wartime features with a hefty portion focusing on the trials and tribulations in the World War II era. These films, albeit dramatized to certain degree, carry a certain prestige and alluring appeal in their nature whether through history, diversity, hardships, combat fighting, or warring nations. Some of these features have even become iconic classics including Patton (1970), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Dirty Dozen (1967), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and Flags of Our Fathers (2006) just to name a few. Now Universal Pictures and actor / director Angelina Jolie presents the story of WWII veteran Louie Zamperini through the cinematic lens of Hollywood with the film Unbroken. Does this wartime drama reach critical acclaim within its genre or is it another generic run-of-the-mill WWII feature?
As a child in the 1920s, Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) was subjected to bullying and ridiculed for his Italian immigrant heritage amongst his peers, creating a troublesome boy that lacked self-discipline and guidance. With his brother’s help, Louie discovers his passion for track running, miraculously transforming the wayward youth into an elite runner that participated in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Eventually, with the outbreak of WWII arriving shortly after, Louie’s track running days are cut short, enlisting in the Air Force and bonding with his fellow airmen crew such as Phil (Domhnail Gleason), Hugh (Jai Courtney), and Mac (Finn Wittrock) before a fatal plane crash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Set adrift in a life raft, Louie perseveres through this atrocious trail, sustaining his hunger to live and his refusal to succumb to the elemental laws of the ocean. Louie is eventually rescued, but by the Japanese, who, in turn, imprisoned him in work camp with the sadistic officer Wantanbe (Takamasa Ishihara), nicknamed “The Bird”, making his pleasurable duties to break Louie’s spirit.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
This compelling true story derives from Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”. The book, which was published back in 2010, has gone on to receive many literary awards and an unwavering acclaim from fans and critics alike. Given the book’s success, it was a foregone conclusion that Zamperini’s story would eventually become a feature film in the foreseeable future. Returning to the director’s chair to helm this heroic tale is actress Angelina Jolie. Jolie, who directed the 2011 film In the Land of Blood and Honey, brings with her a talented group of her writers including the Coen brothers (Joel & Ethan), Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson to help shape the story around this dramatic narrative. To their credit, they do, offering a film that as powerful as it is moving, but not to it’s fully extent with some bumps in the road.
Unbroken opens with a WWII salvo, dropping viewers into an aerial dogfight with Louie and his airmen bomber crew in enemy territory. It’s a thrilling scene with Louie maneuvering through the plane, watching crew members get hurt or perish and frantic gunfire from Japanese fighters zooming by him and his mates. It’s more interesting that this scene (as well as another similar scene down the road) are spliced, interjecting flashback sequences from Louie’s past as a troubled youth and then as a track runner during the Olympic Games. Could they’ve spent more time in the flashback scenes? I say yes (fleshing them out a little more), but the film does a good job mirroring both action and story points well in Unbroken’s first thirty minutes.
Things slow down considerably, however, when Zamperini and two of his surviving crewmen are set aimlessly adrift in the Pacific Ocean. True, it’s an important scene with the airmen meandering through perils of shark infested waters, dodging enemy fire, and the pain of starvation / cabin fever. Although, with the film’s running time of nearing two hours and twenty minutes long, this particular scene should’ve been reduced down slightly, devoting more time elsewhere in the feature or simply shortened the film’s duration. Things do pick up when Louie enters the POW camp, incurring the wrath of Japanese officer Wantanbe (The Bird) as he tortures Zamperini through public humiliation and physical beatings. The violent acts of punishment during these scenes are brutal to watch with Jolie and her team more fixated on showing Wantabe’s brutality towards the Olympic athlete rather than the characterization of other POWs that are swiftly introduced and come off as forgetful.
Relative newcomer Jack O’Connell leaves his mark on the picture with as Unbroken’s main protagonist Louie Zamperini. His acting is good and brings the emotional weight to the character, but his physical endurance and overall transformation in the movie is both miraculous and remarkable. Opposite O’Connell is Takamasa Ishihara as cruel officer Wantanbe. His role in the feature is to be the antagonist and a great one at that with his mostly calm demeanor and his sadistic treatment towards Louie. The only other character that makes a lasting impression is Domhnail Gleason as Phil, one of the bomber crewmen who survived the fatal plane crash and set adrift at sea with Louie. Other actors like Jai Courtney who plays Hugh Cuppernell (another one of Louie’s bomber crew airmen) and Garett Hedlund as John Fitzgerald (a high ranking POW officer Louie meets up with) are given minor roles and could’ve possible been expanded upon (especially Hedlund’s role).
The book and the movie’s tagline / poster highlight three very important words: survival, resilience, and redemption. While the movie showcases Louie’s survival through his forty seven day odyssey on a life raft and his resilience to Wantanbe’s cruel punishments as a POW, it never shows his redemption. Louie’s journey of redemption is a key element in the book, representing that, through all his turmoil, pain, and atrocities he faced, the salvation and humanity within himself was redeemed by his religious belief and finding forgiveness in those who tortured him. The movie does mention it slightly, touching briefly on Louie’s life after the war before the end credits, but this hardly does it justice. By doing this, it leaves viewers (at the end of the movie) perplexed with Zamperini’s characterization, more or less, ambiguous. In short, the feature still retaining his determination to survive and indomitable resilience, but lacks the emotional depth of how he redeemed himself after experiencing these horrific events. It’s a decision that’s a true misfire and a disappointment from Jolie and the collective screenplay writers for Unbroken.
As a side note, from a technical and visual standpoint, Unbroken holds its own in its consistency of keeping the feature grand with its sets and locales. Its cinematography is also worth noting with several poignant scenes that heightened dramatic camera angles and the swelling of Alexandre Desplat’s musical score. As a final personal note, I believe that Unbroken should’ve been presented as a mini-series rather than a feature film. By doing this, it would allow the story to breathe, expanding on certain things with characters, places, and events to be express fully and not constricted. HBO, giving their track record of producing great WWII mini-series like Band of Brothers and The Pacific, would’ve been the best choice for Unbroken to be produced under.
Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s sophomore directorial movie, will have mixed reviews and opinions with some who will love it completely, while others will think it’s simply okay. To me, I fall somewhere in between those two, but more on the positive side. The feature carries and delivers a powerful narrative that’s undeniable awe-inspiring on-screen with remarkable feats, both from its actors and cinematography. What weights this dramatized war feature down is in its failure to fully capture Zamperini’s miraculous life story, most notably in leaving out crucial element in his tale, which leaves film’s narrative incomplete and unable to connect the dots to the man behind the hero. Whether you agree with my review or not about this movie, it’s virtually impossible to not overlook the courageous efforts that the real Louie Zamperini displayed during the course of his life. Louie, who sadly passed away several months ago at the age of ninety seven, will be remembered for generations to come, regarded as a hero of his time and an inspiration to millions everywhere.