Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Alex Russell
MPAA Rating: (for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language)
Running Time: 2:17
Release Date: 12/25/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2014
The story is the star of Unbroken, and it is, admittedly, a doozy of a true-life yarn. Based on the life of Olympic runner and World War II veteran Louis Zamperini, the movie opens with our protagonist as a member of the crew of a U.S. bomber. He survives a Japanese attack, and the crew is assigned to another plane. That plane experiences engine failure and crashes somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. This turns out to be least of his bad luck.
The less one knows about this story, the greater the impact it has (The spoiler sensitive would be correct to infer that statement as an advanced warning). The point is to provoke a feeling of shocked dismay at each, successive step in Zamperini's calamitous experiences during the war. It's a movie dependent upon events, not a person.
The screenplay (adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's book by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson) is not interested in presenting Zamperini as a person, but it is clearly and deferentially impressed with its hero as an ideal. He exists here to be punished—by fate, the elements, time, and the psychotic whims of terrible men. More importantly to the movie's purpose, though, he exists to survive that onslaught of punishment. Just as history is written by the victors, screenplays for Hollywood movies about inspirational, real-life stories set against the backdrop of seemingly unbearable adversity are almost exclusively written about the survivors.
If the story is the movie's focus, let's then take as a given that Zamperini's role here serves solely as an example of the cliché of the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Suddenly, the matter of who Zamperini is ceases to matter. Under these terms, of utmost concern is what he does and what is done to him.
Is it fair to criticize a story based on a person's actual experiences for becoming repetitive, obvious, and formulaic? As long as the discussion concentrates on the way a story about those experiences is told and not the events themselves, it's perfectly fair. It's especially so in a case such as this movie, which sees the tale itself as being more significant than the person who lived it.
After a prologue depicting the Japanese attack on his bomber (In its instant urgency and visceral immediacy, it's a scene that, in retrospect, establishes the movie's entire method of putting events above the character), Louis' (Jack O'Connell) story from childhood to enlisting in the United States Army Air Forces unfolds at a rapid clip. He's a troublemaker of a boy (C.J. Valleroy), smoking and drinking and getting into fights with kids who bully him for his Italian heritage. In high school, he discovers his talent for running after trying to escape being caught under the bleachers looking up girls' skirts.
His older brother Pete (Alex Russell) encourages Louis to join the track team, and he quickly starts winning meets, breaking records, and gaining a reputation for saving his speed for the last lap. His success earns him a spot in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he fails to win a medal but still surprises everyone with his effort. The Nazi flags and banners in the stadium are foreshadowing of the historically convenient variety, while a nod to a Japanese Olympian is of the empty kind.
The rest of the movie follows Louis' time in the war with linear, unadorned solemnity. The plane crash leads to him and two of his comrades stranded in a lifeboat for 47 days (Louis is quick to point out that this is another record he has beaten). It's a harrowing sequence that relies on the unforgiving dispositions of nature (sharks, a storm, and the struggle to find food), the enemy (A plane shoots at the helpless men), and the human mind (which starts to fade from the lack of stimulus) for its tension and conflict. Director Angelina Jolie is patient during this episode, allowing the drudgery of time passing to have an influence that is equal to the more obvious threats.
The most sizeable section of the movie involves Louis' captivity in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp (Murphy's law is in full effect here), where the ruthless and unstable Mutsushiro Watanabe (Miyavi) routinely beats, tortures, and otherwise unnecessarily punishes the detainees for his own, twisted amusement. He takes a specific interest in Louis.
For some reason—even after witnessing Louis' circumstances grow worse and worse—this lengthy section becomes too much. Perhaps it's simply the disheartening monotony of watching a man physically and psychologically thrashed without respite as a way to emphasize how horrific his situation is. Maybe it's a case of the movie's primary interest in circumstantial matters catching up with it. On a structural level, the plot up until this point has benefited from the variety inherent in Louis' story. Here, there is no variety—only tedious and depressing abuse.
More likely, though, it's because we are not granted an understanding of Louis as anything more or less than a paradigm of endurance in the face of overwhelming hardship. It's not until the movie's final moments (which include footage of the real Zamperini, who died earlier this year, living out a long-delayed dream) that Unbroken even suggests there's an individual behind the symbol this man has become.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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