With Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson, Morgan Griffin, Alex Russell. Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. Directed by Angelina Jolie. Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language. 137 minutes.
UNBROKEN is one of those films where the movie has to be separated from the reality. Louis Zamperini was a real life person whose incredible early life is the subject matter of this drama. He got to see a rough cut of the film before he died, at the age of 97, last July. Perhaps it’s just as well. No one should have gone what he went through only to have to face reviews of a movie of his life that point out that it’s already been done in other films.
Part of the problem is that what is essentially a World War II prison camp movie has two extensive stories that get told first, either of which might have been a film all by itself. Angelina Jolie, in her second dramatic film as director after the impressive “In The Land Of Blood And Honey,” returns to the story of people bearing up under the horrors of war. In telling Zamperini’s story, Jolie and her four (!) writers never quite get a handle on it. (Amazingly the script is credited to Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, which makes you wonder what sort of development hell this project went through.)
Zamperini was a young delinquent who turned out to be a gifted runner. He so excelled in school races that he ended up being one of the youngest athletes to qualify to compete in the 1936 Olympics. Then the war intervened, and Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell as a young man) served on bombers, one of which was hit. He and two crew members spent 47 days on a life raft, one of them dying in the process. All of this is shown in some detail before we final get to the main event of the film, his capture as a prisoner of war, and his brutal mistreatment at the hands of Mutsushiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara).
Briefly sketched in at the film’s end is perhaps the most amazing part of the story, that Zamperini survived, returned to America, became a born-again Christian, and ended up personally forgiving those who tortured him… all except Watanabe who refused to meet with him. One can readily see why Laura Hillenbrand’s book about Zamperini attracted interest, but this is an awful lot to try to cram into one movie. In choosing to make the POW experience the crux of the film, the preliminary material goes on far too long as we await the story proper to finally begin. It might have been better if all the material was shortened and painted in broad strokes and we got a sense of what all this did to the man when he was finally out of the service. (An interesting contrast is Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming “American Sniper,” also based on a true story.)
Jolie is clearly ambitious as a director, and she’s no Hollywood star playing at being a moviemaker. Her projects are as far from glamorous as possible, and she shows a willingness to tackle the ugliness of war–and how people can show admirable strength in resisting the urge to violence. In O’Connell she gets a leading man willing to show stoicism in the face of savagery, and with Ishihara (a Japanese composer and musician) she gets someone cultured playing a figure who was all to ready to give in to his sadistic impulses.
“Unbroken” may not be one of the great POW films, but it is a decent entry telling a compelling real life story. Ultimately, it may have been a life too big for the movies.••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.