Written by Marisa Carpico
Unbroken Plot Summary:
Based on a true story and adapted from the book of the same name, Unbroken tells the story of Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), who went from breaking high school track records and running in the Olympics to becoming a bombardier in World War II. When his plane crashes in the middle of the Pacific, Louie and his fellow airmen survive weeks of grueling conditions and hungry sharks only to be taken as POW’s by the Japanese. As Louie’s captors terrorize him, especially one vicious guard the other prisoners call “The Bird” (Takamasa Ishihara), he struggles to maintain his dignity.
Louie Zamperini’s story is truly remarkable. His life was so full of unlikely coincidences and linked to so many major historical moments (shaking hands with Hitler during the 1936 Olympics, a college friend who turned out to be an agent for the Japanese government) that it seems impossible that it could be real—like a darker Forrest Gump. Laura Hillenbrand turned his story into a compelling read and Angelina Jolie, in her second directorial effort, has made an equally compelling film.
Working with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption, pretty much all of the Coen Brothers’ films), Jolie establishes a strong visual style full of magic hour hues, shadows and just enough CGI that manages to distract from the fact that the movie doesn’t really have much dialogue. Take the opening scene, for instance, where Louie and the crew of the Super Man drop bombs on a Japanese-controlled island in the Pacific. Though the characters say little outside of military jargon, the scene moves along at an exciting clip as Louie gets the target in his sights and then moves around the fuselage helping his injured comrades as flack and enemy planes threaten to take them down. All the while, the sun glints beautifully off the water below, belying the danger the men are in. That same energy and urgency carries throughout, even as the setting becomes less varied as Louie first gets trapped on a raft for 47 days and then spends years in violent POW camps.
In those scenes, another of Jolie’s directorial strengths becomes clear: her ability with actors. Jack O’Connell makes a fantastic Louie. He’s charismatic and cocky as pre-war Louie, but really shines in the tougher moments, conveying his defiant, determined spirit even as his eerie des threaten to strip him of his humanity. He’s especially good opposite the villain of the piece, The Bird. Ishihara, a Japanese pop star, gives his character (a real person who was never punished for his war crimes) an air of mad theatricality. The sadistic pleasure the guard takes in terrorizing Louie is obvious in his fierce gaze and pleased smirk when he hits him with a belt buckle or commands every man in the camp (some 200) to punch Louie in the face. It’s a performance that just walks the edge of too much.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Domhnall Gleeson as one of Louie’s fellow castaways is a strong, solid presence, and Garret Hedlund is so charismatic as Louie’s fellow POW that he almost pulls focus from O’Connell. While the former plays a real person, Hedlund’s Fitzgerald is an amalgamation of soldiers Louie knew. The script–credited to Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson–makes a number of such cuts to Louie’s story and it keeps the movie going at a brisk pace so that even at a little over two hours, the film never seems to drag—which makes what they do decide to cut all the more maddening.
What takes up over a hundred pages at the end of Hillenbrand’s book is reduced to a few title cards before the credits in the film and the audience misses out on what made Zamperini’s story so remarkable in the first place. After the war, Zamperini suffered from alcoholism, debilitating flashbacks to the war and a desperate need to take revenge against the Bird until a religious awakening (thanks to Billy Graham, no less) helped him to move on from his past and even forgive the men who hurt him. The film skips all of this and ends with the war, leaving Louie’s well-being and the Bird’s whereabouts unresolved. It’s an abrupt end and one that ultimately makes the film somewhat unsatisfying. We get to see Louie overcome one obstacle after another and yet aren’t allowed to see his final, ultimate triumph because the film spent so long torturing him. The posters claim the movie is about “Survival. Resilience. Redemption,” but it only gives us the first two, and the finished product is less effective because of it.