Starring Jack O’Connell, Domhall Glesson, Garrett Hedlund, Takamasa Ishihara (Miyavi), Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Alex Russell. Directed by Angelina Jolie. (2014, 138 min). Universal
This is one of those “inspirational true stories” that was likely made with the best intentions (and perhaps award season in-mind), but falls just short of providing the emotional wallop you're hoping for. That’s not to say Unbroken doesn’t have its moments. In fact, it has a lot of them, just enough to (almost) justify its lengthy running time. But in the end, we learn more about its subject (Louis Zamberini) in this disc’s bonus features than the film itself.
Zamberini (Jack O’Connell) is a troublemaking Italian-American youth who, guided by his older brother, shapes up to become a nationally famous endurance runner, earning a spot on the 1938 U.S. Olympic team. Upon America’s involvement in WWII, he enlists in the Marines as a bombardier. Later, during an ill-fated rescue mission, his plane crashes in the Pacific, leaving he and two others adrift in the ocean for 45 days. That in itself is fascinatingly story, in which they must overcome hunger, exposure and the constant presence of sharks to stay alive. Two are eventually ‘rescued’ by the Japanese and sent to a prison camp. It’s here that Louis’ real ordeal begins, shipped from one camp to another and, due to his notoriety as a former Olympic athlete, singled-out for additional torment by a megalomaniacal Japanese corporal, Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), known to POWs as “The Bird.”
Louis’ determination versus The Bird’s (jealous?) cruelty has the makings of an interesting story as well, but it's somewhat diminished by repeated and lengthy scenes of vicious beatings, long after we’ve gotten the point. Sure, we still empathize with Louis, but more for what he’s physically forced to endure than his personal resolve…kinda like The Passion of the Christ, minus those pesky thorns. Speaking of which, there’s also a none-too-subtle visual attempt at rendering Louis Christ-like near the end.
Despite how vividly everything is presented, the whole doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts. Unbroken looks terrific, features good performances (especially Ishihara, who steals the film as the hateful Watanabe) and begins wonderfully. Zamberini’s transition from street punk to beloved athlete is handled quickly, yet still manages to be inspirational. The immersive air-raid, plane crash and lifeboat sequences are deftly handled; director Angelina Jolie definitely displays considerable technical skill behind the lens. However, as intense (and violent) as the POW camp scenes are, they become a bit repetitive after awhile. Had those scenes been trimmed to make some narrative room for Zamberini’s post-war accomplishments (his entire life makes the rest of us look like slackers), Unbroken could have truly been the inspirational film it strives to be.
Despite those shortcomings, Unbroken is well worth seeing, an interesting chapter in a pretty amazing life, presented on an epic scale.
- “The Real Louis Zamperini” (a very charming bio of Zamperini’s life, which will make you feel like you’ve wasted yours)
- Featurettes: “Inside Unbroken”; “Prison Camp Theater: Cinderella”; “Louis’ Path to Forgiveness”
- Cast & Crew Concert Featuring Miyavi (who plays “The Bird”; musically, he’s one strange dude)
- Deleted Scenes
- DVD & Digital Copies