Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes
Born to Italian immigrant parents, Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) spent his youth as a troublemaker until his older brother Pete (Alex Russell) found him a way to channel that fire that was always smoldering inside of him; running track. Louis poured himself into his training because if he was willing to work harder than anyone else, he could be a champion. After setting the high school record for the mile he was the youngest ever qualifier for the Olympics in the 5000 meters. After competing in the Berlin Olympics, Louis thought he was a real threat to win a medal in the next Summer Games, but America joined World War Two and he enlisted in the Air Force.
He and his crew were out on a rescue mission when their plane’s engines gave out and they crash landed into the ocean. Louis and his crewmates Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock) were the only survivors, with little to live on besides a few rations of food and water. Mac succumbed to the harsh condition after 33 days, but Louis and Phil continued to cling to life until on day 47 they found themselves looking up at the bow of a Japanese Naval vessel. From the open sea to the rigors of a Japanese POW camp, Louis was determined to make it to the end of the war alive and not even the abuse he suffered at the hands of the sadistic Corporal known as “The Bird” (Takamasa Ishihara) while a prisoner could break his spirit.
Billed as a story of tragedy and triumph, I found Angelina Jolie’s second directorial effort Unbroken to be heavy on the tragedy and light on triumph. Zamperini is an inspiring figure not just because of his will to endure physical pain, but his ability to forgive and let go of his anger. Zamperini himself, credits his faith (he is a born-again Christian) with giving him the peace of mind to finally get over the horrors he endured. Much of that seemed to be whitewashed from the film apart from one scene where O’Connell mumbles a prayer during a storm at sea and a postscript scrawled on screen just before the credits. Jolie seems to be someone who ascribes more to open spirituality than dogmatic religion and since I don’t know, I can only wonder if that lead her to de-emphasize the more overtly religious parts of Zamperini’s story.
I also understand that it is easy for a filmmaker to seduced by the ease of telling a story like this by making the audience watch the hero suffer again and again, but Unbroken could have done itself a favor by spending less time on that and more time on the camaraderie of Louis and his fellow prisoners and how they managed to hold each other up and remind each other of the humanity that still existed. I haven’t seen Garrett Hedlund’s name mentioned in once in any story or review of this movie and that is a crime because he is stoically brilliant and he lends Louis a share of his strength more than once. The cast is uniformly stellar and the credit for that may belong to Jolie as well, as she is an expert at generating emotionally taxing performances herself, it is easy to believe she would know how to help other actors find those places.O’Connell, Gleeson and Wittrock are devastatingly desperate as they waste away in their life rafts clinging to each other and a tiny sliver of hope and Ishihara’s smirking sociopath inspires even more dread because his actions seem so unpredictable and sudden. As a director Jolie both succeeds in getting incredible performances from her actors and fails by taking an A+ story and making a movie that is a B-.