“If I can take it, I can make it.”
This time of year it’s hard to leave Unbroken and not feel the need to set some loftier New Year’s resolutions. After all, few of us have come close to enduring the dire trials and tribulations of Louis Zamperini. How many times can you get knocked down and get back up? How strong is your will not only to live, but to thrive, to prosper? I doubt many people can give an answer close enough to Mr. Zamperini’s. So much goes wrong in his pursuit of survival that it’s almost hard to believe. And even though the film and it’s run of the mill script have some garish flaws, especially early on, I never felt less than empowered by the movie. No, Unbroken is not great. But it’s always commendable. I can’t imagine the difficulty in trying to tell the expansive story of such a rich, hopeful, substantial life.
Young Louie (C.J. Valleroy) is a trouble maker of a child living with his Italian immigrant family in Torrance California. He smokes, cleverly hides his alcohol stash in white-painted milk bottles, and sneaks glances up the skirts of girls while hiding beneath the bleachers. Most of his time is spent running even before he joins the track team, although it’s to evade authority figures trying to catch him for his misdeeds. It’s all interesting detail but doesn’t setup anything later on in the movie. In one of the hokiest and most trite scenes to come this year, Louie’s brother Pete convinces him to start running. And ta-da, presto, voila; just like magic the difficult kid becomes a world-class athlete. This could’ve been a great movie, but the awkward flashbacks from the start jumble the tone and fail to add character depth. They’re just there.
Luckily the story starts to hit its stride once it decides to dedicate itself to a single narrative. Engine failure leads to crash landing in the middle of the ocean, where Louis (Jack O’Connell) survives along with longtime friend Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and the newly added Mac (Finn Wittrock). Only Louis and Phil survived the 47 day battle with the blistering sun, fending off sharks and Japanese airfire, only subsiding off of raw fish and sparse collected rain water. That’s when they were captured by the Japanese and held in various POW camps until the end of World War II. It’s an absolutely harrowing tale of survival, and even at their lowest moments, there’s always a ray of sunshine. Louis would share his mother’s famous Italian recipes, quiz the guys with baseball trivia, always make sure to keep each other talking. His short stature never got in the way of him being the clear-cut leader.
Some people have been knocking Angelina Jolie’s directing effort, but I personally think she did a wonderful job. In a roundtable discussion with The Hollywood Reporter, she willingly acknowledged that she spent as much time learning as she did directing. That’s why she surrounded herself with a great crew, and visually it paid dividends. Jolie captures the epic scale and grandeur of Zamperini’s story. It helps to have world-class cinematographer Roger Deakins painting the pictures for her. Unbroken really is a visually stunning movie. The biggest problem is the script. Four writers took a crack at, including the famed sibling tandem Ethan and Joel Coen, and none were able to pull the sword from the stone. The Coen brothers are known for their memorable dialogue but honestly nothing here stands out. The fleeting moments of raw, intimate human interaction between the cast registers as contrived and insincere, to the point that it takes away from movie’s overall emotional resonance. In war dramas, it’s vital that the audience gets a look inside the head of the characters. That we understand their torment and anguish. Unbroken is psychologically distant.
Jolie sparks some tremendous performances from her cast. Even as background characters, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, and Finn Wittrock do a solid job with what they’re given. And although Domhnall Gleeson’s take on Phil is light on range, he certainly embodies the physicality the role requires. However, this is another show for Jack O’Connell. He left me speechless with his performance in Starred Up, and while I have yet to see him in ’71, I can’t help but imagine he’s just as phenomenal in that. O’Connell pushes his body to the brink, looking the part of an Olympic track athlete just as much as an emaciated, emotionally and bodily battered POW. What a start to his young career he’s had. The other standout comes from Takamasa Ishihara, better known as a singer in Japan by the stage name Miyavi. He plays Sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird.” Watanabe is the face of evil. He came from wealth and anticipated becoming an Officer, but failed, which only added to his cruelty. He’s the Nurse Ratched to Zamperini’s Randle McMurphy. Their One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest bond is easily the best part of the film.
Once the film came to a close, and after showing the tremendously moving end titles, my entire theater began to applaud. It was certainly deserved. Some even gave a standing ovation (which I’ve never understood when those being heralded aren’t even present.) And then a man behind me finished clapping and said, “Yeah, and we’re not allowed to waterboard the f***ers.” Sadly, that’s the naivete some people still harbor in their hateful hearts. We learn that Zamperini went back and forgave his captors, that he carried the Olympic torch through the streets of Japan at age 80. To see those gracious acts of forgiveness and love on the big screen and then be ignorant enough to say such a groundless, inhumane, animalistic sentence is disgustingly inexcusable. That’s why Louis Zamperini will be remembered and the man sitting behind me will not. Unbroken isn’t perfect or flawless, but it achieves what it sets out to. We’re shown the story of a great person, and thanks to Jolie, her cast and her crew, the heroic Louis Zamperini will long be remembered by the masses.
“A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5