Louis Zamperini was a name generally lost in the annals of history. He accomplished a lot, one remarkable thing after another but in the grand scheme of things? LOST in the history books. Then, a little book called Unbroken, by author Laura Hillenbrand, was published back in 2010 and EVERYBODY knew the name. It was and is a great read, a tribute to the human spirit. A huge bestseller, it was only a matter of time, right? For what you ask? For the film adaptation of course. That's today's review, 2014's Unbroken.
This is a movie that defies a straightforward plot description. It tells the slightly condensed story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), a young Italian-American man who grew up with his family in California. Putting a troublesome childhood behind him, Louis finds his niche as a runner, eventually becoming a world-class runner who competes at the 1936 Olympics. But this stubborn, fiery young man is about to be tested as the world is thrown into WWII as a bombardier on an American bomber flying missions in the Pacific. That plane will go down with no warning in the Pacific, he will fight through a survival ordeal adrift fro longer than anyone ever has, and be moved from one brutal Japanese prison camp to another over two-plus years. What helps him survive one horrific ordeal after another? What pushes him to keep on fighting, keep on hoping and keep on surviving?
I loved Hillenbrand's non-fiction book, racing through it in a week or so. It was a book that raced through my entire family with my parents, cousins, aunts and uncles also reading it. So to say I was excited when I found out it was being adapted into a film? Yeah, an understatement. The talent assembled to film that adaptation is a big reason for the excitement, starting with Angelina Jolie directing and Joel and Ethan Coen writing the screenplay with Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. Just because Louis's story is so all-enveloping, any book to film adaptation is a daunting task. How do you encapsulate so much in a reasonably timed movie? I think Jolie did as good a job as possible with this remarkable true story. It's not a movie you're necessarily going to love. Instead, it's one you watch and appreciate, and for me, question how Louis and all those around him made it through World War II in a Japanese prison camp.
This is a brutal, uncomfortable movie to watch, and that's as a PG-13 film. If this was an R-rated film...my goodness. It would be nearly impossible to watch. Jolie's direction is solid throughout, a personal story of survival that does an impressive job navigating Louis' life. O'Connell is the star, but through some flashbacks we see Louie growing up (C.J. Valleroy as young Louie, John D'Leo his older brother), and how he goes from a street punk of sorts to a world class runner. With cinematographer Roger Deakins shooting the film, it's a beautiful finished product, artsy at times without hitting your head with its art. Composer Alexandre Desplat's score is okay, nothing too flashy but doing a good job supporting the ever-increasing drama.
So we've got a feisty, cocky Italian-American young man as a main character. Who should we pick? How about a red-headed and generally unknown British actor?!? I kid. O'Connell does a fine job as Louis, sporting some dyed jet black hair and some skin-darkening makeup. This is O'Connell's first big role in a major film, and he doesn't disappoint. He brings that right amount of charm and likability to a character early on that goes a long way as we see the hell Louis is put through after his bomber goes down. Dramatically, it is quite a performance, but more importantly, it is an incredibly moving emotional and physical part. From his days adrift at sea to trying to survive the POW camps with little food while being progressively beaten down by his Japanese captors -- quite literally -- we see O'Connell's Louis start to wither away. One of the most moving scenes -- and most uncomfortable -- has Louis forced to hold a heavy wooden rail tie above his head. If he drops it, a guard will shoot him. In terms of survival, it doesn't get anymore cut and dry than that.
Years down the road, I think the role that will be most well-remember is that of Takamasa Ishihara as Watanabe, a brutal, sadistic Japanese guard who earns the nickname 'the Bird' from the prisoners (because what they actually call him would produce worse repercussions) and takes a liking to Louis. What's that mean? He wants to break him down, to grind him down to nothing at all. This isn't just a job though. The Bird enjoys what he does. He enjoys torturing and pushing and beating the prisoners. It's a terrifying performance, one I'm guessing will stir some Oscar buzz. The crazy part? Ishihara is actually a Japanese singer and songwriter with little in the way of acting experience. Well, if the whole music thing doesn't work out....yeah, he's got a future in acting.
Those are the two key parts where the focus remains throughout. It's a better movie because both O'Connell and Ishihara are relative unknowns. We come into 'Unbroken' with no preconceived notions about either actor. Who else to look for? Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock are excellent with O'Connell as Louis' fellow survivors adrift at sea just trying to hold out until some sort of help (any help really) arrives with Jai Courtney playing another member of the crew. One of the more recognizable faces, Garrett Hedlund plays Fitzgerald, the highest ranking prisoner at the POW camp Louis is sent to. Maddalena Ischiale (Louis' mom), Vincenzo Amato (Louis' dad) and Alex Russell (Louis' brother) play Zamperini's family, but they're not given much to do other than look worried and/or be supportive. No big stars overall across the cast, and the movie is the better for it.
The movie is at its strongest when following Louis' 47-day ordeal adrift at sea and then his two and a half years as a prisoner of war in the Pacific and later in Japan. Reading the book, these segments were excruciating to watch at times, and Jolie does a fine job bringing the real-life story to film. I think the best choice she could have made was focusing mainly on Louis' involvement in WWII. It's just that; focused. I don't know if it is a movie I will revisit anytime soon, but it is an excellent, well-done, moving story that shows how powerful history can be. There are thousands and millions of stories that history has swallowed up over the years. It's cool, informative, moving and educational to see a story like that of Louis Zamperini brought to life. Easy to recommend the film, and if you haven't already, definitely give the book a try.
Unbroken (2014): ***/****