Movie Review: Unbroken

Jack O’Connell as Louis “Louie” Zamperini
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

It appears that the title “Unbroken” is an unsubstantiated claim. A claim that – akin to the hero’s leaky life raft – can’t hold water. Even with all Jolie’s horses and all Jolie’s men (i.e., screenwriters the Coen Bros. [True Grit, No Country for Old Men, Fargo], Richard LaGravenese [Behind the Candelabra, The Fisher King] and William Nicholson (Mandela, Gladiator, Les Misérables) – they couldn’t put Louie’s bio together again.

As stated in the opening credits, Unbroken is “a true story.” Rather than “inspired by” or any other such nod to the real deal, this declaration of ultimate veracity can force the filmmakers into an onerous adherence to “the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” Making it all the more necessary for filmmakers Angelina Jolie & Co. to become deft wizards of scene selection, pacing and sagacious editing.

But such is not the case with this recounting of the Louis “Louie” Zamperini story, initially memorialized in Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.” This singular man’s story, a delinquent son of Italian immigrants turned Olympic track star turned plane crash survivor (who subsists for 47 days in a life raft adrift in shark-infested waters) turned target of sadistic torture in a POW camp should have been the cinematic stuff of a Schindler’s List, a Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, or, humor notwithstanding, The Great Escape. Instead, we are glutted with scenes of such similar content that our initial empathy slowly drains into a glazed, somewhat mild annoyance.

Given this movie opens on Christmas Day, an unfortunate carol comes to mind:

On the only day of Christmas, Unbroken gave to us:
112 vicious beatings,
111 facial punchings,
110 sharks a threat-ning,
109 soldiers starving,
108 steep rocky climbs for prisoners carrying excessively heavy buckets on their backs until they drop and die and …
OK, enough’s enough. Unlike the film, it’s best to desist from further mind-numbing repetition.

Miyaki as “The Bird”, Jack O’Connell as Louie Zamperini
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

It’s surprising that not one of the three teams and/or individual screenwriters delved into the mindset of Imperial officer and primary torturer Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird” (played by actor/composer Miyavi). The other POWs tell Louie that the Bird earned that moniker because he “listens” … which is odd, because there’s no listening going on. He should have been called “The Beater” since all we see him do is beat Louie to a pulp any and every chance he gets. Begging the question: Why was Louie his special pet, his #1 on his literal “hit list?” Other than suggesting a slight homoerotic intimation as he whispers into Louie’s face every now and then, and some third-person tossed off aside about daddy issues, we are confounded by who this Bird person is, and what drove him to such extremes.

Yet Unbroken is not completely without merit. As Louie, O’Connell offers up an impressive performance, equal parts physical and emotional. Once inside the POW camp, restricted by little dialogue, his eyes reflect a myriad of pain and anguish. Between this performance and two other notable turns (in 2013’s Starred Up and this year’s ’71, screened at multiple U.S. film festivals with a wider release date set in 2015), O’Connell’s star is most definitely on the rise.

(l to r) Finn Wittrock as Mac, Domhnall Gleeson as Phil, Jack O’Connell as Louie
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Note that the film’s most life is found inside the life raft. The scenes between Louie (Jack O’Connell) and his two surviving mates Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock) are incisive, revelatory and highly affecting. As the devout pilot Phil, Gleeson offers up a beautifully sensitive performance. (His starring roles in this year’s Frank and 2013’s About Time lifted both pieces exponentially.) And Wittrock (The Normal Heart, Happy in Mike Nichols’ 2012 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman) completes the trio as the flawed, despairing Mac.

As is often the case with biographies, while we know that Zamperini does indeed survive — reducing the tension as to his outcome — unless we’ve read the book, we don’t know about Phil or Mac. Which it makes it rather ironic that the supporting characters’ fates carry far more audience engagement than the hero’s.

Shot by the Coen Bros.’ go-to cinematographer Roger Deakins, Unbroken is often a marvel to behold with its swooping planes, at once beautiful and deadly, silhouettes of half-dead American soldiers against dramatic skies and, in one instance, the overwhelming shadow of the Japanese warship as it engulfs Zamperini’s tiny life raft. With his extraordinary sense of light and shadow, Deakins contributes more depth and heart to the film than the screenplay itself.

Upon hearing that the 97-year-old Zamperini was in the hospital, Jolie threw a rough cut together for him to see prior to his passing on July 2. We can only hope that he was happy with the result. At the very least, happier than us.

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Rating on a scale of 5 Ho!-Ho!-Ho!-rrendously brutal films that often release on Xmas Day: 2.5

Release Date: December 25, 2014
Directed by: Angelina Jolie
Screenplay by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson
Based on the biograph by: Laura Hillenbrand
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 137 minutes

Here’s the trailer:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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