Based on a story of courage and faith, ‘Unbroken’ pays homage to an extraordinary man by way of a great film. Based on the biography ‘Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption’ by Laura Hillenbrand, the film and book are an account of the incrdible life of World War II POW and Olympic Athlete, Louis Zamperini. The film is beautifully crafted; weaving in explosive action, inspiring perseverance, and stunning imagery. ‘Unbroken’ is a must see and will have you leaving the theater believing that you can overcome anything.
As the movie posters and trailers have said, this is “the unbelievable true story” of Louis Zamperini who competed in the Olympics and was taken prisoner while serving during the Second World War. I didn’t read the book before seeing the movie, but I immediately ordered it when I got home. It is unbelievable that anyone could at the same time have the best and worst luck ever.
The beginning of the movie starts with Louis and his fellow soldiers taking part in the bombing of a Japanese target. He was a bombardier who was responsible for actually releasing the bombs. During the mission, their plane comes under attack by flak and other Japanese planes. Throughout this sequence, the movie makes a couple flashbacks to his past, showing viewers his career as an athlete.
These flashbacks start by showing Zamperini as quite the troublemaker who finds cross country running as an outlet. Encouraged to take up the sport by his brother Pete (Alex Russell), he broke many high school records and qualified to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. All of these scenes are quite nice, especially the Olympic ones because you get to see the games as they were 80 years ago.
With that said, I’m glad they stopped flashing back and forth after awhile. I found the World War II story much more interesting and well done than the sports story. The war story has the inspiring feeling you expect from the movie’s advertising and the other story doesn’t. This may be because I’m just not that into sports but I can usually be inspired by anything. Eventually I found myself a bit done with these parts.
Louis and some of his friends survive this mission but their next will set a series of events in motion that really drives the point of this movie home. While out on a rescue mission with other soldiers, the engines fail on their plane and they crash land into the Pacific Ocean. Louis and two others survive the crash and are adrift at sea for 47 days. His friend Mac (Finn Wittrock) dies before himself and close friend Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) are rescued/captured by the Japanese.
The scenes where they are stranded in the ocean is what changed my opinion of how Jack O’Connell handled this important character. O’Connell who plays Zamperini, had me thinking that he wasn’t cut out for this role at the beginning of this movie. The cross country scenes with him in it didn’t really prove anything to me in terms of his acting. I felt like these scenes were either played too intensely or too timidly.
On the other hand, once the more dramatic scenes started, he really showed that he could play a character that is able to be in a terrible situation but still keep their head about them. There is this one scene where Mac is dying and he is asking Louis is he is going to die. Louis responds with “probably” and the scene is very sad without there being a lot of crying. I think that a lot of young actors think that sad scenes mean they have to cry but in reality, people grieve in so many other ways. He was able to show sadness and anger in a subtle way and I think those are the kind of performances that I enjoy most.
Another great performance in this film is given by Takamasa Ishihara who plays Watanabe, the brutal Japanese commander of the POW camps that Louis is placed in. Of all the actors in ‘Unbroken’, Ishihara received the most Oscar buzz for this role and it is well deserved. His character has an outward persona of being evil and sadistic but inside, Watanabe is just a scared little boy who has a lot of daddy issues.
The most impressive scene for both O’Connell and Ishihara is when Zamperini is forced to hold a log above his head or be killed. After holding it up all day, he makes a final display of defiance by lifting the log as high as he can and yelling. He does all of this while looking straight into the eyes of Watanabe who upon their first meeting told him never to do that. This action unhinges Watanabe and he is sent into a fit of rage and severely beat Zamperini using an assortment of weapons.
Both actors show incredible emotion with just the use of their eyes in this scene. You can tell by looking into O’Connell’s that he is playing a character that is determined to persevere and won’t be killed so easily. The same goes for Ishihara except you can see the threads coming apart in his mind and slowly see him being mentally defeated.
The story is a big draw as it is but the thing on everyone’s mind when it comes to this movie is, Angelina Jolie. In her second attempt as a director, Jolie shows that she can do it all. For the most part, the film feels very cohesive and has a nice flow to it. Again, the only things I had an issue with was the flashbacks. Since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know if these flashbacks happen in it. If they didn’t happen in the book, it was a poor decision on Jolie and the screenwriter’s part.
Speaking of screenwriters, you can’t get much better than four time Oscar winning writers Ethan and Joel Coen. Everything the characters did felt natural and in my opinion, a lot of that has to do with a good script.
Last names like Jolie and Coen may have been a huge part in selling this movie but the only last name that really matters is Zamperini. This man was placed into extraordinary circumstances and came out a better man. His story is one that could inspire anyone and a book or movie isn’t nearly enough to do it justice. But, it was still a beautiful homage to a brave man.
Film Mention gives ‘Unbroken’ 4 out of 5 film reels.
‘Unbroken’ was released in theaters on December 25, 2014 and stars Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock and Jai Courtney. The film was written by the Ethan and Joel Coen, and directed by Angelina Jolie.