The story of Louis Zamperini, an American born of Italian immigrants, is a remarkable, real-life tale of perseverance and eventual triumph.
He was an Olympic runner – he finished eighth in the 5000-meters – and survived forty-seven days adrift at sea after his plane was shot down during WW11. That was followed by the man spending more than two harrowing years in several Japanese prisoner of war camps where he was severely beaten and tortured. Believing he was missing in action, President Roosevelt sent Zamperini’s parents a formal note of condolence. That was in 1944. But Zamperini survived. His real death came this year, 2014, when he died of pneumonia. He was 97.
In the new real-life drama Unbroken, based on Laura Hillenbrands exhaustively researched book, director Angelina Jolie brings the story of Zamperini to the screen, and to her credit it’s an undeniable moving and occasionally inspirational film that by default earns your respect. This is clearly a labor of love for the famed actor/director. It’s also a tough watch.
After a riveting airborne opening where the world is in chaos, Unbroken jumps back to earlier days in Zamperini’s life when he was a troublesome boy with a talent for speed, a talent developed from always running away from bullies. Zamperini went on to be the fastest high-school runner in high-school history, which eventually led to the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany before Hitler.
It was on May 27, 1943 when Zamperini’s B-24 was shot down over the Pacific. “Do you think God made the stars?” Zamperini (an outstanding performance from Jack O’Connell) asks as he floats, day after day in the open seas with his captain (Domhnall Gleeson) and his tail gunner sergeant (Finn Wittrock). “Are we part of a grand plan?”
Soon, not even a circling shark phases the men, so exhausted are they from the seemingly endless weeks of floating and bobbing on the high-seas. Then a plane passes overhead. They fire two flares. The plane turns. It’s an enemy plane, and it fires on them, all while even more sharks circle. But it’s later, when the well framed shadow of another plane is cast over the raft that their ordeal at sea is finally over. “I got good news and bad news,” Zamperini mutters to his captain. After forty-seven days at sea, rescue has finally come, only it’s not the allies gliding overhead; it’s the Japanese.
What follows is a torturous account of Zamperini’s treatment at the cruel hands of Japanese bully boys. Under the merciless guidance of the sadistic Japanese army sergeant known as The Bird (a chilling Takamasa Ishihara known better in his native country as rock singer/songwriter Miyavi) they continuously, relentlessly beat prisoners into submission. It’s as though the war had developed in them a culture of cowards, beating defenseless prisoners to the extreme, knowing the men could never fight back with no end in sight. Did they ever really see themselves as honorable, fighting a just war for their country while behaving as they did?
Plus, the beatings and the continual threat of death lingers over Zamperini even once word leaks that the war might soon be over. “We win, we’re dead,” the men tell each other, knowing that the Japanese would surely kill them rather than hand them over if the allies succeed.
With superior cinematography rich in detail from Roger Deakins, director Jolie has delivered a handsome package that can’t help but earn your admiration. However, you still sense restraint. As with many highlights of a life, including an extraordinary one such as this, it’s the moments you know that are missing more than the ones you witness that seem to matter, and you question from where the decisions came when considering the omissions.
Even though he never won his Olympic race, Hitler was so impressed with Zamperini’s final sprint that the German leader insisted on meeting the runner and shaking his hand. That alone would have made for a fascinating moment. Plus there was a plot among the men to murder the cruel Japanese sergeant that is never explored, neither is the time when the men caused The Bird to suffer a debilitating attack of diarrhea, forcing the despicable sergeant to be side-lined for a week. There’s also the danger of running end credits explaining what happened to certain characters once the war was over that seem as interesting, if not more interesting, than what happens during the telling of the story, particular when the overlong running time of the picture has concentrated more on the suffering and pain than illustrating the inspiration for Zamperini’s unbelievable ability to endure.
Still, it will be difficult not to be affected by much of what you see. It may not tell the whole story – there’s a very real sense of disappointment when learning of the comeuppance of the cowardly Japanese guards, especially after having seen so much of their brutality yet never witnessing the penalties of their war crimes – yet for all its faults Unbroken remains a story of extraordinary courage that earns your admiration even if you find yourself wishing that the film had explored more.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 137 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)