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‘Unbroken’ is a great survival story in a pretty good movie: 3 stars

For Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), the worst part of his two years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp was the sociopathic corporal nicknamed the Bird, played by Japanese singer/songwriter Miyavi.
For Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), the worst part of his two years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp was the sociopathic corporal nicknamed the Bird, played by Japanese singer/songwriter Miyavi. Universal Pictures

Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” is a highly polished tribute to human resilience.

So why isn’t it more moving?

Based on the best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand (“Seabiscuit”), this ambitious film tells a story that would be outlandish except for the fact that it’s true.

When Louis Zamperini died earlier this year at age 97, he could look back on a personal history that included juvenile delinquency, a stint as an Olympic athlete and WWII adventures as an Army Air Corps bombardier. Zamperini survived seven weeks drifting on the Pacific in a life raft, and two years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, enduring hellish punishments above and beyond those routinely suffered by his fellow POWs.

That’s a lot of life to cram into a feature film, and the screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese already has drawn fire for what it has left out. More on that later.

The movie is owned by Brit actor Jack O’Connell. Other players come and go, including C.J. Valleroy as young Louis, but “Unbroken” is virtually a one-man show, and O’Connell sinks into the role with almost documentary understatement.

Sumptuously mounted, with some terrific action sequences — two bomber crashes plus those long weeks bobbing on a shark-filled sea — the film establishes early and maintains throughout the idea that after a difficult start, Louis is a man determined to survive and succeed.

But he is very nearly broken by the sadistic commander of the POW camp. This demon, called by prisoners the Bird, is chillingly portrayed by Takamasa Ishihara (best known as Japanese pop star Miyavi), whose suave asexuality is far creepier than mere thuggery. The Bird apparently resents Louis’ one-time athletic fame and now devotes himself to cooking up physical and psychological tortures.

At one point he demands that every prisoner in the camp line up to punch Louis in the face. It takes hours.

In her directing debut, the shattering Bosnian war drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” Jolie dared to go all out in portraying the cruelty we humans are capable of. She ups the ante in “Unbroken,” refusing to turn away from the savagery her protagonist endured.

And yet something is missing. Despite the life-and-death situations, the film lacks dramatic edge. It’s fine, but not outstanding.

And then there’s the fact that the movie ends with the life-affirming suggestion that Louis Zamperini refused to be broken by the hardships he endured.

Fans of Hillenbrand’s book know better. Zamperini returned to the States only to develop a killer case of alcoholism and what we’d now immediately identify as post-traumatic stress disorder. It led to a troubled marriage and a downward spiral that was arrested only when Zamperini found God.

To be specific, he underwent a conversion at a Billy Graham crusade.

“Unbroken” reduces all of Zamperini’s after-war experiences to a few postscripts appearing on the screen. No wonder the Billy Graham folks have called foul: It wasn’t Louis Zamperini’s iron will that turned around his life. It was religion.

You can see the quandary the filmmakers faced: How do they tell Zamperini’s story without turning it into a recruiting poster for Jesus? But in trying to twist their way out they have done a disservice to the truth.

“Unbroken” is a good film. But you can’t help wondering what it would have been like if it had been made by believers … or at least by talents not averse to considering the role of faith in human perseverance.

Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.

‘UNBROKEN’

Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language

Time: 2:17

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