Film Review: Unbroken
Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, the American high-school track star who, after competing in the 1936 Olympics, flew as a bombardier in World War II until his plane crashed in the South Pacific. He and two other crew members survived a record 47 days at sea, only to be captured by the Japanese and taken to a POW camp where he was tortured and beaten. Based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit) and a screenplay written by the Coen brothers (Fargo), Unbroken is the second film directed by Angelina Jolie.
Unbroken is a very ambitious story to tell, to say the least. Zamperini’s remarkable life could be divided into four broad categories (early life and track career, survival at sea, prisoner of war, and later life), and each one could be a whole film to itself. Jolie focuses the bulk of the movie on the survival at sea and prisoner of war experiences, while prefacing that with flashbacks to his childhood, early life in track and field, and the 1936 Olympics. Though the opening bombing mission and dogfight is thrilling, I wasn’t a big fan of the use of the flashbacks during the combat to tell the story of his early life. The movie never effectively ties the two segments together, explaining nothing about his transition between the Olympics and into the Air Force. Gaps like these were probably necessary to keep the film from being too long on the one hand, but on the other they leave too many holes in the story, don’t effectively establish critical relationships, and make it difficult for the audience to determine the true importance of the various characters and people that come and go from Louis’s life.
One of the aspects of his story that Jolie focuses heavily on is Zamperini’s time in prisoner of war camps in Japan, where he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. A central figure in that period is the sadistic leader of the camp Mutsushiro Watanabe, known as “The Bird”, who seemed to single out Zamperini for the worst treatment and mind games. Jolie’s casting choice for this role is quite unexpected in that she casts a Japanese musician and artist with relatively little acting experience. Known for his androgynous looks (think a Japanese Boy George), Takamasa Ishihara, or “Miyavi” as he is known, brings a noticeable effeminacy to the character. Clearly she is making a statement (there is no way it was unintentional), probably implying that “The Bird’s” obsession and sadistic control over Zamperini was sexually motivated. Though his performance is excellent, I felt it was a little blatant and question whether the risk Jolie took in casting him was necessary.
Jolie’s other casting choices were risky as well, such as English actor Jack O’Connell in the lead role of adult Louis Zamperini. In this case, I think the risk paid off. Though he hasn’t had any major starring film roles, he is outstanding. His physical transformation throughout the film is striking, going from a fit athlete to near death in the life-raft, and constant starvation and forced labor in a POW camp. His emotional range is just as effective, and one of the most pivotal scenes in the film where he is pushed by “The Bird” to his absolute physical and mental limits is quite emotional and left many in the audience in tears. Domnhall Gleeson, who stars as Zamperini’s best friend and pilot “Phil” Phillips, lacks the typical good looks of a leading man in Hollywood films but makes up for it with an incredible supporting performance and physical transformation as well. I only felt Finn Witrock (American Horror Story) was a clear miss as “Mac” McNamara. Primarily a television actor, I don’t think he pulled off the role well at all, and to me, constantly looked like he was “acting”.
Unbroken, though full of great performances, did fall a little short of my expectations. I felt it was too ambitious and didn’t effectively weave a complete story expressing the depth and magnitude of each segment of Zamperini’s remarkable journey. Probably in order to make the film more palatable to mass-audiences, a very complex story was watered down and focused too little on developing and explaining the supporting characters and their importance in the story. In many instances they just drifted in and out of the story and we didn’t even know their names. Some key elements of the story I though were lost altogether were Zamperini’s future Olympic aspirations (and the tragedy of losing them by the beatings he sustained), his close friendship with Phil, and the suffering of his family during his imprisonment and their belief that he had been killed. Regardless of that, Unbroken is certainly a good film, just not a great one. I give Jolie credit for tackling a project of such scope and magnitude as this that deals with the issue of mankind’s ability to inflict unspeakable pain and terror on itself, and the ability of others to endure it, and even forgive and move on. That alone makes it worth seeing.