As memorable as many true stories are, Hollywood often makes the pitfall of turning them into less-than-stellar movies. Films like The Soloist and Diana try to pay tribute to a real person but don't give enough insight into their subjects to make a film worth watching. Particularly, they rush to tell their subjects' stories and end up leaving out vital elements to make the film shorter. In some ways, Unbroken makes these pitfalls, but thanks to the visceral direction of Angelina Jolie, it is certainly above average.
Unbroken tells the amazing true story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who ends up becoming a war hero. Zamperini's story, as it was was stated by his son, Luke, is far too grand and eventful to be told in two and a half hours. After seeing this film, I would have to agree with him. At the same time though, I thought the film on its own was still a worthy tribute.
After stating that she wishes to move on from acting to directing, Angelina absolutely shows promise with Unbroken. Angelina Jolie's direction is skillful and committed, and with the help of cinematographer Roger Deakins, Unbroken is a visual triumph.
With the help of excellent lighting and effects, Unbroken has the feeling of a storybook, giving the audience a fitting visual representation of the trials that Zamperini went through. For instance, as he and his men are stuck at sea early in the film, the water is a beautiful bright blue while they are shown with cracked, dry faces. It perfectly conveys the torture of being dehydrated under the hot sun surrounded by water unsuitable for drinking.
Later on in the movie, Zamperini is captured and eventually brought to a labor camp led by an evil war criminal known as "the Bird" (played excellently by Japanese guitarist Miyavi). When he first makes his entrance, he is surrounded by dry, arid land with ominous dusty winds surrounding him. The character's cruel, sadistic nature is perfectly parallel with the harsh, sadistic conditions of the labor camp. Jolie and Deakins deserve all the praise they can get and much more.
The cast of Unbroken is worthy of just as much lauding. Specifically, the performances of Jack O'Connell and Miyavi are worth pointing out. O'Connell's performance gives Zamperini a warmly likable persona early on in the film, and it is quite easy to root for him to prevail. As the film goes on, the character's physical strength deteriorates but his ambition to survive still goes strong. O'Connell especially portrays this well in the scene where he is forced to hold a wooden beam above his head. Naturally, his teeth are clenched and his legs are wobbly, but O'Connell keeps a focused expression that honors the heroic perseverance of Zamperini himself.
Newcomer Miyavi's performance is a quintessential breakout role. He gives the Bird a sadistic personality bound to strike fear in the hearts of audiences. At the same time, the character is also given humanity. In a way, it is like his commitment to serving his country has turned him into a monster to the point where the only way he can find solace is by punishing any enemy of Japan as brutally as he can. When Zamperini defies the odds near the end of the film, the Bird is distraught and in disbelief at the notion that he failed his country by failing to properly punish the enemy.
While the direction, technical aspects and performances are worth praising, this movie is surprisingly lacking in the screenplay department.
The film's ambitions are high, as it shows in the screenplay. In the span of two and a half hours, Zamperini's humble beginnings as a child, his participation in the 1936 Olympics, his time as a WWII soldier, his time lost at sea, and his time as a POW are all covered. It certainly does its best at telling Zamperini's story in a relatively short period of time. However, those who have researched the true story will notice that important elements have been left out for time.
One of the biggest themes of Zamperini's story was forgiveness. Mainly, his religious upbringing helping him forgive those who captured him. This was a subject that was given a lofty amount of attention in the CBS Sports documentary: The Great Zamperini (seen above), so clearly it should have had more focus than a few minutes in the whole movie. Perhaps a miniseries would have been a more appropriate way to tell his story. Here is how it could have gone:
- Part One: Zamperini's humble beginnings.
- Part Two: Zamperini competes in the Olympics.
- Part Three: Zamperini's time in the war.
- Part Four: Zamperini's time lost at sea.
- Part Five: Zamperini's time as a POW.
- Part Six: Zamperini's last days as a POW and rescue.
- Part Seven: Zamperini uses his religious upbringing to forgive his captors.
Now, don't get me wrong: amazing true stories can be told on film. For example, Lincoln gives an excellent amount of time and attention to Abraham Lincoln's ambition to get the Emancipation Proclamation signed. Focusing on one part of Lincoln's life also allows insight into the relationships with his family along the way. However, Unbroken's time limit forces it to rush through Zamperini's entire war story while still leaving out some of the most important aspects of it. It could have been the story of a man who defied the odds and accepted the forgiving nature of his religion. Instead, it is mainly the story of defying the odds and surviving the war. It's still a moving story, but I feel like it would have been stronger if it focused more on the religious elements.
Unbroken will undoubtedly win audiences over with its moving real-life story to back it up. It certainly means well, as it does its part in immortalizing a man who captured and beaten in the name of his country and lived to tell the tale. While its' screenplay struggles to tell the complete story it aims to, the overall production is worth a watch. If this is a sign of Angelina Jolie's future in directing, it is looking to be a bright one indeed.