Monday, December 29, 2014

Review: Unbroken

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Angelina Jolie's second film as a director is a pretty typical prisoner of war drama, although its extraordinary story is a true one. And while the film does not break much new ground in its sub-genre, depicting all the horrors one might expect along with the brave struggle and eventual triumph over adversity, it's also a pretty good one.

For those unaware of the tale, "Unbroken" follows the story of Louis Zamperini, a troubled youth whose Italian immigrant parents do not know what to do with him until his older brother realizes his potential as a runner, leading him to eventually compete in the 1936 Olympics, placing eighth overall but setting a record with his 56-second final lap in the 5,000-meter distance race.

Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), who died earlier this year at age 97, became a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and flew missions as a bombardier during World War II. During a rescue mission in 1943, the plane in which Zamperini was riding was shot down and he and two other men spent 47 days adrift on a life raft, eating only an albatross and some fish and being tormented by sharks.

After their month-and-a-half on the raft, Zamperini and Russell Allen Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), the only survivor of that ordeal, are captured by the Japanese and sent to a prison camp, where Zamperini is constantly tortured by Mutsuhiro "Bird" Watanabe, a prison guard who was later included on General Douglas MacArthur's list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan.

Watanabe is pretty heinous and his atrocities against Zamperini include forcing the former Olympian to take part in a race that he clearly cannot finish for the purpose of humiliating him, making him hold up a wooden beam for an entire day or risk being shot, beating him, starving him and requiring all of the other prisoners to line up and punch him in the face. The film runs just under two hours and 20 minutes and, after a while, the numerous torture scenes become a little difficult to bear.

Still, "Unbroken" is an effective wartime drama. O'Connell, whose breakout performance in this year's "Starred Up" has drawn raves, carries the film on his shoulders impressively. And Takamasa Ishihara's portrayal of Watanabe is equally strong, despite his character being given short shrift in that he is merely evil without much motivation, other than that he hates Zamperini due to his inability to completely break him.

As a director, it would seem that Jolie is drawn to war stories. Her debut, the Bosnian war drama "In the Land of Blood and Honey," was uneven, but it provided enough evidence that Jolie should be taken seriously as a filmmaker and she could handle complex subject matter. "Unbroken" may not be the Oscar movie that she and Universal Pictures are - likely - hoping it to be. Its brush strokes are a little too wide and the film doesn't portray much we haven't already seen numerous times in prisoner of war dramas, from Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17" to Werner Herzog's "Rescue Dawn."

But "Unbroken" works nonetheless, due to O'Connell's committed performance, Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography and Jolie's strength behind the camera. And despite its onslaught of struggles that we know will eventually be overcome, Zamperini's story is pretty incredible. Hollywood bio films often include actual footage of their subjects in their finales, but in this case - Zamperini, at age 80, is seen jogging with a torch during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan - it's more than warranted.

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