Unbroken is every bit the Oscar-bait movie one would expect, but is elevated by offering viewers several different types of great drama in one tightly woven narrative.
In Unbroken we meet Louis Zamperini, a man with a truly amazing life story. Beginning as the ruffian son of Italian immigrants, Louis finds himself inspired by his older brother’s advice, “If you can take it, you can make it,” carrying that mantra with him through years of performance feat as a track and field runner. When Louis impresses the world with a record final lap in the 1936 Olympic games, he feels like he is on top of the world and truly can do anything.
Soon after that, the world goes to war for a second time, and Louis finds himself dreaming of an Olympic return from the skies over the Pacific, as he and his crew make bombing runs against the Japanese empire. When their plane goes down over open water, Louis and his surviving crew men find themselves stranded at sea with few supplies and little hope.
When the Japanese army eventually discovers and imprisons him, Louis finds that the pains of athletics or desolation of basic survival were nothing compared to the trials of human spirit that await him as a POW under one of the worst Japanese officers in the war, “The Bird.”
The third feature film by director and mega-star Angelina Jolie, Unbroken is every bit the Oscar-bait movie one would expect, but is elevated by offering viewers several different types of great drama in one tightly woven narrative.
On a directorial level, Jolie has advanced a great deal, turning in a film that shows she has a long future behind the camera. The undertaking alone is worth commending: a sports drama; a survivalist story (on ocean water no less); a war drama crossed with a prison drama – and all of it set in early-to-mid twentieth century period. Not only does Jolie (and her skilled team of designers) create all of these worlds convincingly, she also manages to make good-to-great “mini-movies” out of each piece of Zamperini’s story, keeping them distinct from one another, while also blending them perfectly into one another via the central character story.
One can tell from the level of comprehension and iconography in the visual composition that Jolie has been a student of many great directors. It would be a compliment to call Unbroken a very “Spielbergian” film – and in many ways that is how it plays. Yet there is also a grittiness and edge mixed into the lighter Spielberg aesthetic, balancing out vividly colored and golden-tinged hues of Zamperini’s early years with the grimy and bloody years he spent as a POW.
That contrast carries over to the tonal balance of the film, which almost effortlessly surfs from inspiration to thrills, horror, despair, and inspiration all over again. The overall effect is getting several movie experiences in one – more than your money’s worth if you are debating a theatrical ticket price.
The script combines Oscar-caliber talent like William Nicholson (Gladiator) and Richard LaGravenese (Behind the Candelabra) and filmmaking heavyweights The Coen Bros., only further solidifying Unbroken as Oscar-ready cinematic product. Regardless, the writing team excels at taking Laura Hillenbrand’s book about Zamperini and distilling it into a well-developed character drama with clear (if cliched) thematic arcs.
The film has a lot of ground to cover, but is efficient (for the most part) of hitting exactly the right beats in Zamperini’s life story. Only in the POW segment do encroaching subplots and side characters throw off an otherwise tight focus to the storytelling and make the film meander a bit before coming to a big finish.
Like Jolie, the writers also do a good job of compartmentalizing each piece of the story so that it feels like a fresh chapter with renewed interest, while also keeping the focus on the emotional/spiritual arc of Louis as a consistent throughline, so that the movie’s climax (which is much more metaphoric and spiritual than literal) has significant impact and satisfies in an iconic and moving way that is hard for any film to pull off.
The cast is led by Jack O’Connell (Skins) who pretty much puts the whole spectrum of acting up onto the screen, including a tremendous physical transformation. It’s a breakout performance that showcases O’Connell as an true performer, from his body and physicality to the subtly of his emoting and, conversely, the gravitas of his presence in some of the movie’s big dramatic moments. He does Zamperini’s legacy proud.
Takamasa Ishihara similarly impresses in his debut feature film role as Mutsushiro Watanabe, aka “The Bird.” Much of the film’s third act revolves around Louis’ psychological battle with The Bird, and together, O’Connell and Ishihara create an electric chemistry as opposing forces in a war of willpower. Ishihara is subtle and controlled in his portrayal of The Bird, supplying enough inference and implication to create a three-dimensional villain well above the caricature of cruel warden. Thanks to the inexperienced actor rising to the task, the war of wills between Louis and The Bird culminates in a satisfying narrative, character and thematic payoff.
Beyond the principal two, there are a variety of good supporting players to help carry things along. Domhall Gleeson (About Time) and (particularly) Finn Wittrock (American Horror Story: Freak Show) help to make the ocean survival segment a compelling character and psychological drama with strong, subtle control. Garrett Hedlund (Tron Legacy) turns in a similarly good slow-burn emotive performance, though the narrative short-changes its initial investment in his POW storyline. Other than that, names like Jai Courtney and Alex Russell pop up here in there to bolster some small but necessary parts in the film.
In the end, Unbroken is the sort of classic drama and triumph-of-human-spirit story that people love in movies – with the added bonus of offering three different (but entertaining) versions of that experience. For Jolie it’s a huge step forward as a filmmaker, as the epic tale of Louis Zamperini rises above her own stardom and proves just how much talent she has when calling shots behind a camera. A great pick for that feel-good holiday film.
Unbroken is now playing in theaters. It is 137 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language.