There have been a lot of mixed opinions for Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of the New York Times bestseller ‘Unbroken’, but none of the negativity really makes much sense to me. I have seen the complaint that it is to much a standard prestige pic or that Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) comes off as almost a super hero. It’s too safe a movie. It’s too dutiful. It’s not exceptional or dazzling enough. It doesn’t bring anything new to the POW genre.
I have to say, I don’t understand any of this nonsense. It would seem to me that all these folks wanted to change the story of this man to fit it into their own view or that they wanted the movie to swing more dirt at him. I certainly can agree that he is painted in a kind light by the talented filmmakers, but this is not an in depth look at the full course of the man’s life. I’m sure he had his flaws, but this film doesn’t suffer for not digging into them. This is an examination of a man who had to deal with one horrible thing after another and manage not to lose his faith in the face of adversity.
There is certainly a ‘Forrest Gump’ like approach to Zamperini’s younger years that doesn’t quite fully work. I guess that it could be called dutiful in a way, but that’s not the issue with it. I think the only thing in this entire film that doesn’t work is some of the slogan like dialogue that Louie’s brother shares with him as life advice. It’s fairly one dimensional. Yet, that makes up about 50 seconds of a 137 minute movie. Hardly much of a reason to condemn an entire film.
So, let’s talk about what really works in this movie, because there is a lot. The opening WWII dog fight sequence that begins this film is absolutely astonishing. A beautifully constructed scene that is both tense and illuminating in how it introduces us to characters we will grow to care for. After that scene is when we get to know Zamperini through all those flashbacks. Some of this is typical stuff, but the way the running scenes are done is both exciting and more important to his character than one might expect.
At about 30 minutes in is when we get the first of several tragic moments that would come to make up Louie’s WWII experience and the reason for this movie. On a mission to help some soldiers, Louie’s plane crashes in the middle of the ocean. Most of the crew dies on impact, but Louie, along with the pilot of the ship (Domnhall Gleeson) and one of the gunners (Finn Wittrock), manage to survive. What follows is a 47 day fight for their lives.
This might be my favorite part of the film. The three men develop a much needed friendship that helps them survive and develop some guts that I’m not sure I could have. There is one sequence where they tackle a shark in the ocean and kill it for food. That is pretty hardcore for a couple guys who are completely malnourished. Yet, it is the simple conversation between friends that is the most important.
Luckily, after that 47 days, they are rescued, but not by the Americans. After fighting the elements for more than a month, they are rescued by their Japanese enemy, separated, and forced into a POW camp. The amount of time spent in the POW camp is not specified, but the difficulty of the time is palpable. Within moments of arriving Louie is singled out by the camp leader, Sergeant Watanabe (Miyavi), and subjected to countless episodes of torture.
Sometimes this torture is a beating with a bamboo stick that the sergeant always has on him. Sometimes this torture is every prisoner in the camp being forced to hit Louie in the face. However, the worst is a time when Louie is made to hold a heavy board over his head or he will be shot dead. This scene of sheer pain makes way to great triumph when Louie uses his determination as a giant middle finger to his captors. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
There is a lot of powerful moments in this movie and I have no intention of ruining them for you. This movie does such a fantastic job of establishing the difficulty of the place and making the audience feel the hopelessness of the situation. Which makes Louie’s fight for life and his determination all the more moving. I couldn’t imagine what he went through before seeing this movie, but I can now. I know that his personal experience of these events is amplified by a thousand, but feel like I got a glimpse at what that might have felt like. Isn’t that what great movies are supposed to do?
It also cannot be understated how much brilliant work there is on display in this film. Roger Deakins cinematography is just gorgeous. Alexandre Desplat’s score is truly wonderful. The performances are all uniformly outstanding. I could truly go on and on about this Jack O’Connell kid. He was in a couple little movies this year, but after this movie everybody in Hollywood will know his name. Expect to see a lot of him in the future.
So, I don’t care whether this movie turned out to be the Oscar bait that everyone was hoping for or if it looks to much like dutiful Oscar bait for critics to rally behind. This is a really good story that everyone should experience. Angelina Jolie has shown us that she can deliver something epic and intimate in the same film. Not many directors can make a picture like this. She does and she does it with grace. I hope you go out and experience this tale over the Christmas holiday. You will not regret it.
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