Tuesday, December 23, 2014
“Unbroken” is the sort of story that if it weren’t true, people would dismiss it as Hollywood hoo-ha. But Louis “Louie” Zamperini really lived this life: Olympic athlete who competed at the 1936 games in Berlin, WWII bombardier whose plane crashed into the Pacific, surviving 47 days at sea before being captured and subjected to two years of torment as a prisoner of war.
This movie, which I think one of the most powerful of the year, hasn’t received much love from other critics, and I find that puzzling. Is it the presence of Anjelina Jolie as director, and a certain snootiness towards glamorous movie stars stepping behind the camera? If so, I’ll just remind them people said the same thing about Clint Eastwood and Mike Nichols … and they didn’t turn out too bad.
To my mind, Jolie acquits herself splendidly, hitting the emotional high and low notes just right, as well as staging a few daring action scenes. Clearly, she’s got a future behind the camera if she carries out her threat to abandon acting.
Chiding of the screenplay seems more well-placed. The script has some big names on it – Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson – as well as being based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand, who also penned the splendid “Seabiscuit.”
But it is a fairly conventional narrative presentation. And, as others have pointed it, it almost seems to combine elements of three famous Oscar-winning films into one: the Olympics sequence from “Chariots of Fire,” the lifeboat part from “Life of Pi” and the POW stuff from “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
Oh well. The historical record is what it is. The movie also truncates the latter portion of Hillenbrand’s book, which deals with Zamperini’s (unsurprisingly) difficult transition to civilian life and religious awakening.
Jack O’Connell is solid as Zamperini, but I do think this sort of movie might have been better served by having a more recognizable actor in the main role. Since the screenplay doesn’t really attempt to get inside the character’s head, but observes his trials and tribulations from without, audiences might have a harder time connecting emotionally with him. We need more of a touchstone.
The supporting cast is terrific. I especially liked Domhnall Gleeson as Phillips, the pilot of the bomber that crashes into the ocean, who has a sort of reserved grace, and Jai Courtney and Garrett Hedlund as fellow POWs, who know they can’t help him directly when the guards are beating him to a pulp, but cheer on silently.
If I have one serious complaint with the movie, it’s Japanese singer/actor Miyavi as the sadistic head guard the prisoners refer to as “The Bird,” because he sees everything. Most of what’s depicted really happened – the Bird was sent into hiding as a war criminal after Japan’s surrender.
OK, so he’s a bad guy. But the film turns him into a cloying, effeminate monster who sidles up to his charges and whispers in their ear before delivering a beating. His eyes even look odd, like he’s been made up with excessive mascara or something. The end result is the Bird feels like a cartoon, much like the Michael Fassbender character in “12 Years a Slave.”
It’s like they’re trying to cram all the evil of an era into a single figure, and it rings false.
Still, “Unbroken” was one of the most riveting cinematic experiences I had this year. The lesson of Louie Zamperini isn’t that he was tougher and braver than everyone else, but that this power to withstand desperate challenges resides in all of us if we can find it.