Sadly, ‘Unbroken’ is ordinary

Published 8:30 am Saturday, January 17, 2015

By Chuck Lilley
Critic’s Corner

Director/Producer Angelina Jolie’s (“In the Land of Milk and Honey”) “Unbroken” accurately depicts the real-life, remarkable survival of Louis Zamperini (played by actor Jack O’Connell) during World War II. Promoted as a biopic, Jolie largely limits her film to Zamperini’s 47-day ordeal adrift in the Pacific and his two years of inhumane treatment by Japanese captors. Unfortunately the film depiction of Laura Hillenbrand’s (“Seabiscuit”) wonderfully written best-seller is surprisingly unremarkable despite script contributions by a stable of established film writers, William Nicholson (“Gladiator,” “Les Miserables”), Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King”) and the Coen Brothers (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men”).

Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” is much more than a tale of World War II survival. Zamperini’s life spirals into a sustained drunken abyss due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder until an encounter with the Rev. Billy Graham in the late 1940s becomes a life game-changer. At the novel’s core is the universal message of forgiveness through Christian faith, which director Jolie, a self-professed agnostic, only partially mentions within the end of film credits.

Jolie treats Zamperini’s wartime ordeal with the respect that it deserves, but provides few in-depth explanations for his indomitable willpower beyond an innate resourcefulness. Too often the inspiring but trite family phrase “if you can take it, you can make it” is suggested as the wellspring of Zamperini’s inner strength. As a result, the film “Unbroken” exposes audiences to the nature of the main character’s heart, but fails to uncover the essence of Zamperini’s soul. The film is rated PG-13 and mercifully lacks graphic depictions of the well-documented mistreatment by Japanese soldiers towards prisoners throughout World War II.

In a potentially career-defining role, actor Jack O’Connell (“Harry Brown”) is believable as a lithe, feisty Zamperini. His physical deterioration throughout the film as a POW is palpable, and his natural athleticism is consistent with Zamperini’s, who both develops into a determined high school track phenomenon, and participates in the 1936 Olympic Games.

Mayavi, a Japanese rock star with few film credits, is a stretch as the deranged prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabi (“The Bird”). Throughout the film, Mayavi’s smooth face and spotless uniform show no sign of wear and tear despite both his physical cruelty and the surrounding filth and grime of the prisoner of war environment. His performance is no match for Sessue Hayakawa’s mature prison warden portrayal in director David Lean’s (“Lawrence of Arabia”) 1957 Best Picture, “Bridge on the River Kwai.”

Veteran photographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Reader,” “No Country for Old Men,” “True Grit” and “Skyfall”), an 11-time Oscar nominee, may finally bring home the bacon for outstanding cinematography at this year’s Academy Awards. His unique camera angles and timely close-ups deftly reflect the agonizing fear of Zamperini and his fellow prisoners of war. Memorable scenes range from sudden Great White attacks in open water to nail-biting moments when Japanese Zeros engage Zamperini’s B-24 bomber crew in a life or death struggle. The stirring sound effects and Deakins’ action-packed scenes vicariously place audiences within the belly of the B-24.

With a run-time of over two hours, “Unbroken” is an effective reminder of the fundamental inhumanity that is historically unleashed during war time. However, the essence of Louis Zamperini and the basis for his improbable ability to forgive and to move forward with purpose, is best found by reading Hillenbrand’s novel. It is a more satisfying reward than Jolie’s film effort, which unfortunately provides an unremarkable window into a remarkable life.

Louis Zamperini passed away in 2014 at the age of 97.


Chuck’s rating: three thumbs up out of five