Conventional film, unconventional hero
Most of the buzz about the film “Unbroken” seems to be surrounding not the story of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic star and WW II bombardier who was shot down, left adrift at sea only to be captured and then tortured for years in Japanese war camps but the film’s director Angelina Jolie. “Unbroken” is her first major directorial release — faithful readers know this column has not been kind to Ms. Jolie and her inflated celebrity and marginal acting prowess. But Jolie certainly doesn’t embarrass herself in this moving, if predictable, depiction of Louie’s life – he’s the real hero here—and what an incredible life he led.
It is better to go into “Unbroken” with a little mystery, though the film is based on a popular 2010 book by Laura Hillenbrand called “Unbroken, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.” Suffice to say, Louie (a sturdy Jack O’Connell) was a B-24 bombardier and in the films thrilling opening moments (filmed magnificently by legendary Cinematographer Roger Deakins) we see him and his crew fend off hundreds of direct hits on a bombing mission over the Pacific Ocean and that’s just the beginning of his incredible story.
Eventually, a plane crash leaves Louie and two other crew members (Domhall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock) adrift at sea for an interminable amount of time. Louie will end up in a Japanese P.O.W. camp under the authority of a sadistic officer nicknamed “The Bird” (a terrifying portrayal by Miyavi). Adding to the physical torture for all the prisoners is the fact that they are told that if the U.S. wins the war all prisoners will be executed. Not exactly spirit-lifting reassurance.
In flashbacks we are given the backstory to Louie’s somewhat troubled life as a kid from an Italian family living in Torrance, Calif. His older brother (Jai Courtney) provides important encouragement that helps the young Louie (C.J. Valleroy) become a track star. While key to the story, these flashbacks tend to slow down the momentum a bit and the pacing is plodding and fairly one-note. Viewers can’t be faulted if “Unbroken” feels like a mash-up of “Chariots of Fire,” “Cast Away, “ and “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
Unfortunately, perhaps the most unique and similarly impressive part of Zamperini’s life is illustrated in only a few moments during the film’s epilogue that explains how he kept his promise to obey God and how he returned to Japan to meet his captors in person while forgiving them of their atrocities.
“Unbroken” is a good but not great film, it treads over familiar waters that still inspire and despite its flaws is a solid piece of work by its fledgling director. Perhaps this will also inspire Ms. Jolie to stay BEHIND the camera for a while.
Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality and brief language.