“If you can take it, you can make it.”
Those were the words spoken by Louis Zamperini’s brother as he prepared to train as an Olympic runner in Unbroken. Little did he know that over the next few years those words would take on more meaning than ever. The film is a harrowing look at Zamperini’s life, first as a runner on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team and second as a WWII bombardier taken captive by the Japanese after 47 days in a life raft following the crash landing of his plane in the Pacific. It’s a grim, brutal experience that doesn’t have the rah-rah theatrics that many may be expecting out of the classic “inspirational” film.
Taking on a theatre-like three acts, the film introduces Zamperini (O’Connell) as a young boy constantly getting into fights. The son of Italian immigrants, he was the frequent target of bullying. He would find his calling on the school track team and compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Though he finished eighth in the 5000-meter event, his final lap of fifty-six seconds set a world record. Act two chronicles his time as a WWII bombardier. Sent on a rescue mission, Zamperini’s plane crashes and he and two other soldiers find themselves at sea in a life raft for forty-seven days. They were eventually rescued – by the Japanese. The extended third act recounts his misery at two separate Japanese internment camps.
Directed by Angelina Jolie and filmed through the lens of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Unbroken is nothing short of an epic spectacle visually. Always stunning to look at, the stacked cast behind the camera does wonders for what could have been a run-of-the-mill biography. Opening with one of the most exhilaratingly intense aerial battles ever put to film, the movie rarely lets up. It’s not until the final hour that Unbroken veers into monotonous unpleasantries, as Zamperini becomes the whipping boy for the sadistic Watanabe (Miyavi), a Japanese military leader. While it’s certainly admirable that Zamperini survived such war atrocities – at one point all of his fellow soldiers are forced to punch him in the face one at a time – it doesn’t necessarily make for compelling viewing when done so repetitively and with little else to focus on. Zamperini’s bravery and will to live gets pounded into cinematic submission, and it’s more relief than inspiration when it finally ends.
Jack O’Connell, coming off the critical acclaim of last year’s Starred Up, turns in a grueling, star-making performance as the lead. Raw and determined, he transforms effortlessly from in-shape runner to emaciated prisoner of war during the course of the movie. Japanese singer-songwriter Miyavi, making only his second appearance as an actor, is the real revelation. His portrayal of Watanabe as a heartless, brutal force that inflicts pain and agony without remorse is one of the year’s most haunting and memorable performances.
Zamperini, after battling post-traumatic stress and alcoholism, became a born-again Christian and made forgiveness the theme of his life. The closing credits offer up plenty of material for a film about his post-war years – one that could arguably be more fascinating than Unbroken. That said, this is a top-notch production that accomplishes its goal of putting the viewer in Zamperini’s shoes to detail events that hopefully no one has to ever experience again. It’s just incredibly unpleasant and relentlessly overdone in its second half. Absent the soaring music and triumphant flag-waving one might expect, Unbroken may worth seeing provided you know what you’re in for. Once.
Studio: Universal Pictures
Length: 137 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language.
Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014
Directed by: Angelina Jolie
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen & Richard LaGravenese & William Nicholson. Based upon the book by Laura Hillenbrand.
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Finn Wittrock