A film review by Craig J. Koban January 7, 2015


2014, PG-13, 137 mins.


Jack O'Connell as Louis Zamperini  /  Takamasa Ishihara as Mutsuhiro 'The Bird' Watanabe  /  Garrett Hedlund as John Fitzgerald  /  Jai Courtney as Hugh 'Cup' Cuppernell  /  Domhnall Gleeson as Russel Allen 'Phil' Phillips  /  Finn Wittrock as Francis 'Mac' McNamara  /  John Magaro as Frank A. Tinker  /  Alex Russell as Pete Zamperini  /  Luke Treadaway as Miller

Directed by Angelina Jolie  /  Written by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson

I've always admired Angelina Jolie the actress for her headstrong tenacity and willingness to get into the darker recesses of her flawed characters.  

It’s sad, though, when Jolie as a director lacks the teeth-clenched grit and edginess of many of her acclaimed performances.  UNBROKEN – her second film as a filmmaker after 2011's Bosnia themed drama IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY – shows Jolie as a director with solid instincts for mounting impressive and gorgeously shot period set pieces while getting truly poignant performances from her actors.  Unfortunately, for as noble minded and worthwhile as UNBROKEN is in telling a reality based World War II story of human bravery and survival amidst hellish circumstances, too much of the film feels like it’s playing it a bit too safely; it’s almost too frustratingly old fashioned for its own good. 

The focal point of UNBROKEN is Louie Zamperini, a child of Italian immigrants that moved to America in the 1920’s and went on to become a star Olympic athlete.  After appearing in the 1936 games in Berlin, Zamperini decided to serve his country in World War II and enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a brave bombardier.  The B52 he was in was shot down over the Pacific, after which time he and two other survivors of the crash lived on a life raft for nearly two months until they were discovered and captured by the Japanese.  Zamperini and his comrades were then taken to a POW camp where they were routinely beaten, starved, and worked like slaves for another two years.  All of this, of course, makes for a potentially powerful viewing experience, and Zamperini’s tale of Herculean endurance is unquestionably inspirational.  Yet, for as well intentioned as Jolie is in bringing this man’s worthwhile story to the screen, UNBROKEN remains cold and aloof about its subject matter.  That, and there’s very little development of not only the Zamperini character, but also of its Japanese captors themselves. 



The film opens rather sensationally, though, which displays Jolie’s ample directorial prowess at delivering large scale and lavish Hollywood action sequences.  It features Zamperini (in a star making turn by Jack O’Connell) in his B52 bomber engaging in heavy aerial combat with the enemy.  There’s a stark and exhilarating immediacy to these breathtaking sequences, which are kind of undermined by some odd editorial choices by Jolie to jump back and forth in the opening act between the war and Zamperini’s upbringing as a child and eventual track star fame.  UNBROKEN certainly opens with a bang, but the odd rhythm to juxtaposing these thrilling war scenes with the quieter ones of Zamperini on the home front in the past gives the film a peculiarly discordant vibe.  Flashing back and forward too much early on seems ultimately confusing; a more linear biopic approach would have been a finer option here. 

The scenes in the past are crucial, though, to relaying the hardships that Zamperini went through as an ostracized immigrant child, who was frequently bullied and beaten by racist schoolboys primarily because of his ethnicity. He was a child lacking in self-respect and one that took solace in being alone over forming meaningful ties with other people.  Thankfully, Zamperini’s early flirtation with track running became an obsession for him, which lead to him becoming an Olympic athlete and fierce competitor on the track, earning the nickname of “The Torrance Tornado.”  All of these expository scenes – basking in the sumptuous and exquisitely rendered cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins – grounds us in the film’s period and Zamperini’s harsh adolescence and young adulthood, but Jolie seems to rush them a bit to get back into the thick of WWII action.

It’s also never fully explained what Zamperini’s rationale was for enlisting outside of obligatory “defending his country” imperatives.  He does join the Air Force and forms tight bonds with fellow servicemen Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Hugh (Jai Courtney), but his world is violently thrust upside down when his plane crashed and was forced to endure 47 days in shark-ravaged waters on a small lifeboat.  Arguably, the most compelling sequences in the whole film are the ones on the raft showing Zamperini and his survivors fighting dehydration, starvation, and emotional self-implosion while trying to deal with what must have felt like an unavoidable death sentence.  The real spiritual death of Zamperini, of course, would occur when the Japanese captured him.  Talk about horrible luck. 

Zamperini and company soon begin to realize the other hell they will be forced to live through when they arrive at the Japanese POW camp, overruled by the quiet spoken, but outwardly sadistic Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (played with slimy levels of borderline cartoonish menace by Takamasa Ishihara).  The Bird may have the appearance of a gentleman soldier, but he reveals himself to be a textbook sadist that will stop at nothing to break the will of Zamperini (which is exacerbated by the fact that The Bird discovers Zamperini’s past Olympic glory days, which makes him want to punish the America hero even more).  There’s a blatant level of inhumanity and unending menace to The Bird that makes him an easily detestable screen villain, but for those viewers hoping to find a more thoroughly challenging and well rounded portrayal of Japanese service men in and out of POW camps then UNBROKEN will surely disappoint.  There’s not much dimension given to The Bird or the Japanese soldiers beyond being deliverers of wanton pain and torture.  

The ace up Jolie’s sleeve in the film is the presence of Jack O’Connell, an actor of instant charm that physically altered his body to both look the part of pre-war track runner and (later) an emaciated POW camp victim (the startling bodily transformation by both he and his fellow actors shockingly grounds us in their plight).  He also manages to relay Zamperini’s indomitable sense of mental and physical resiliency without curtailing to camera mugging theatrics like so many lesser performers would have done.  Jolie marries her knack for honing in on the assured talents of her cast with a remarkably confident production aesthetic that displays her as a first-rate director on a pure technical level.  We have seen countless WWII and POW camp movies in the past, which makes seeing new ones problematic from a viewpoint of freshness.  Rather wisely, Jolie doesn’t try to aesthetically reinvent the wheel here; she makes every minute of Zamperini;s camp existence feel nightmarishly lived-in and frighteningly tangible.  

UNBROKEN is a film that’s both heartbreaking and moving in fleeting moments beyond its empowered production artifice, but I nevertheless left the theater feeling hollow at the end of it.  It’s a meticulously researched and envisioned bit of historical recreation, but the characters presented in the narrative feel disposable and ill rendered.  The screenplay is credited to Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, and the Coen Brothers (yes, those two, who very early on reworked much of the script written by the other writers).  There’s certainly a larger and deeply touching story of Zamperini’s quest to stay alive to see a way out of the war and back home to his family, but in the screenplay’s journey towards celebrating a man that should be celebrated it stalls when it comes to defining what really made Zamperini tick.  Upon leaving UNBROKEN one really doesn’t learn all that much about him at all. 

UNBROKEN’s other theme is of forgiveness.  The film concludes showing real life footage of an 81-year-old Zamperini returning to Japan to help run and carry the Olympic torch towards Nagano (very close to where his actual POW camp was located) for the games in 1998.  Title cards reveal that he even tried to connect with his former captor and torturer in The Bird, whom refused to meet with him.  One of the most uplifting aspects of UNBROKEN is to see this elderly man proudly carry on with his life a live to be nearly 100 (he died earlier this year) despite spending a combined three years in a raft marooned on the ocean and as a POW prisoner.  It’s astounding, actually.  UNBROKEN is a testament to one human being’s fortitude and perseverance.  Regrettably, there’s just a better film to be made of this material.  No worries about Jolie the director, though.  She has the soul of a natural filmmaker, and when she has the right project and script there’s not telling what she could do.

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