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Review: Unbroken (2014)

Unbroken (2014)

Directed by: Angelina Jolie

Premise: Based on a true story. Set during World War II, Olympic athlete turned American soldier Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) survives forty-seven days at sea in a life raft and is later held captive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

What Works: At its most basic level, Unbroken is a story of human endurance and as that the movie succeeds. This story Louis Zamperini is made of three distinct parts: his athletic career, his struggle to survive on a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific Ocean, and his time held captive at a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II. Each section of the movie confronts Zamperini with a set of circumstances in which he has to push himself and his teammates and comrades to go beyond their own perceived limits and these moments are done effectively. The story builds very well with athletic achievements surpassed by the struggle against the ocean which is later topped by Zamperini’s experiences in a prison camp. The movie succeeds in large part because of the central performance by Jack O’Connell as Zamperini. This part could be played as a superman but O’Connell smartly maintains the character’s human dimensions. He does not want to be going through these things and he is suffering through them. It’s the contrast of Zamperini’s endurance against this background of suffering that makes the movie work. Unbroken also has an impressive performance by Takamasa Ishihara as the commandant of the prison camp. In the context of the movie, Ishihara’s role is that of the unstoppable force to O’Connell’s immovable object and Ishihara’s cold and sadistic performance is key to putting the audience on Zamperini’s side and making him a heroic character. Unbroken is also an extremely well made film. It is beautifully shot. The scenes recreating the 1936 Olympics capture the grandeur and spectacle of the games without looking too artificial in the way that recreations of sports arenas tend to do. The sequences set on the ocean convey the imposing flatness of the sea and the punishing effect of the elements on the human body. Most grueling are the scenes in the prison camps which capture the grit and brutality of incarceration as well as the struggle among the inmates to maintain hope.

What Doesn’t: Unbroken suffers from some basic problem but the most essential flaw is its lack of a thesis. The three portions of this movie are only connected by Zamperini’s struggle to survive but no larger truths or ideas about this man and his extraordinary life emerge from the film. As a result a lot of scenes in Unbroken feel disconnected from each other. The other thing missing from the film is Zamperini himself. The things that happened to him are extraordinary but as a dramatic character he remains at a distance. The film tells us what happened to him but it never really communicates who he was. This flaw becomes very apparent at the end of the picture. The movie concludes with a postscript that summarizes Zamperini’s life after the war and it’s revealed that he had a religious experience during the war and that he spent his post-war years serving his faith. This spiritual epiphany isn’t conveyed in the movie and the character never gives the impression that he has somehow changed in a religious way. In fact, the postscript gives more details about Zamperini’s life and some of what it describes is actually more interesting that what is dramatized in the movie. This is a case of filmmakers trying to impose an interpretation onto the film but the effort to spell out the meaning of this story only highlights the extent to which they’ve failed to convey it in dramatic terms.

Bottom Line: The tale of Unbroken is extraordinary and in terms of cinematic craft it is well made. Those two qualities carry the movie and make it an acceptable piece of entertainment. But as a dramatization it ultimately misses the most interesting part of its subject.

Episode: #523 (January 4, 2015)