Movie Review: Unbroken

Unbroken is the story of American Olympian Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O'Connell) and his ordeal as a POW in Japan.

Unbroken is the story of American Olympian Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell) and his ordeal as a POW in Japan.

One of the surprise hit movies of the winter was Unbroken. many would think it’s another World War II drama but it’s more of a biographical story. A story worth telling.

The story begins in 1943 with Louis Zamperini missioned an air battle against Japan over the Pacific Ocean. The plane he’s in is hit but they’re able to land safely. Louis isn’t just your typical soldier. Louis grew up in Torrance, California an outsider. The only Italian in his small town, Louie was subject to a lot of bullying as a child and spent much of time stealing, drinking alcohol or smoking. He was frequently arrested and his parents were very concerned if he’d turn out okay. His older brother noticed something as he tried to run from bullies: speed. His brother encouraged him to try track and field. It paid off as Louis became the talk of the town as he was winning race after race and soon became known as the Torrance Tornado. At the age of 18, he qualified for the 1936 Olympics in the 5000m. The race was won by Finnish runners as expected but Louis finished eighth with an incredible 56-second last lap: something unheard of at the time.

Soon after, Louis and surviving members of the crew are on a rescue mission on a plane military officials believe is suitable to fly but has noticeable faults. Over the Pacific Ocean, the plane breaks down and crashes. Only Louis, Mac and Phil from the plane survive and find refuge on two inflatable rafts. Alone at sea, the two try to live the best they can until relief finds them or they hit land. That would mean drinking rain water and fishing for food and avoiding having sharks try to eat them. Attempts at getting a rescue plane failed. The first, that happened on the third day, didn’t notice them. The second, on the 27th day, is a Japanese plane that sees them as the enemy and shoots at them. They survive by hiding under their raft. Unfortunately Mac dies on the 33rd day.

On the 47th day, they bump into a Japanese boat, where they’re taken on as prisoners of war. The Japanese demand fact but neither Louis nor Phil know anything. This leads them being sent to POW camps on the mainland. Zamperini is sent to a camp in Tokyo full of Americans and Australians and run by a sadistic young general who calls himself ‘The Bird.’ The Bird has especially singled out Louis because he’s an Olympic athlete and takes pleasure in beating him. The Bird also gets Louis to broadcast messages on radio that he’s okay and treated well. When he’s given an offer to speak anti-American propaganda, Louis refuses and is punished by having all the other POWs punch him in the face.

The Bird would torture Louis for two years until he is to be transferred elsewhere. Louis’ relief is short-lived as the camp is damaged by the American bombing in Tokyo. They’re all taken to a new camp which is run by The Bird and are made to work in a coal barge. Upon hearing Louis sprained his ankle, The Bird gets him to life a big piece of wood. If he drops it, The Bird will kill him. Louis holds it up for hours until The Bird can’t take it anymore and beats him in frustration. Soon World War II ends and the movie moves to Louis returning and makes mention of his life after the War.

This is an impressive story about one man and his ability to withstand torture. This is also an impressive story of a man who was singled out among other POW’s in being tortured by the leader only to triumph in the end. It even succeeds in the action moments and has the audience wondering what will happen next.

However the way the movie has been carried out, it’s nothing new, different or fresh. The story plays out like a common Hollywood against-all-odds story. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as it plays itself out well to the crowd and keeps the story true. However this is not going to work come Oscar time when the standards of what makes a movie among the ‘elite of the year’ change and evolve over time. This could be Best Picture material twenty years ago but it won’t cut it now. Unbroken makes better movie material than film material. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just the movie is better set for something like summer movie fare.

However the movie does have a notable positive factor. I may have mentioned in my review of Selma of how violence is made to look cowardly. Here in Unbroken, we have The Bird who loves to inflict pain on ‘the enemy’ and has taken Louis as his favorite person to assault. The Bird was looking for a chance to kill Louis with having him hold that block of wood up or else he’d kill him. When Louis succeeded it lifting it up again, it was there the Bird’s pride was damaged and he beats Louis with a bamboo pole in frustration. I can’t think of better revenge. Funny how it would assault The Bird’s pride forever as he would decline all the times Louis offered to make peace.

This also leads to another glitch in the movie. Louis is not only known for what he withstood during the war but also for making peace with the Japanese people and even the army over time. At the end, it’s only focused briefly through end-notes and video footage of Louis running with the torch in Japan during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics torch relay and not much else. I felt that should have be added in or given script because it is a significant part of Louis Zamperini’s life.

Angelina Jolie did an impressive job in directing. She didn’t really direct anything remarkable but she did an excellent job of directing a story that’s also a war thriller. Joel and Ethan Coen delivered a script with the help of William Nicholson and Richard La Gravenese that’s a surprise from the Coens. Usually you’d expect darker artsy work from them. This time they delivered on a thriller war story. Not what you’d expect from them but quite impressive. The acting was good if not spectacular. Jack O’Donnell was very good as Zamperini but the role could have been more developed. Miyavi was also very good as The Bird but I felt the role was missing something there too as it still seemed like your typical bad guy.

If there’s one place where the film is at its best, it’s in the technical categories. Alexandre Desplat again delivers another winning score. It should be no surprise Desplat is composer of the year. Roger Deakins again delivers another excellent cinematography job, the set areas were very realistic to the World War II era with its set time and with its war-like grittiness and the action sequences were also excellent.

Unbroken is a very good, very enjoyable movie about a remarkable story. However it would’ve been better released in the summer or the fall instead of Oscar time. Still very much worth watching.

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