Release Date: December 25th, 2014 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Angelina Jolie Actors: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund, Morgan Griffin, Maddalena Ischiale, Takamasa Ishihara
uring a World War II bombing run over Nauru, Lieutenant Louis Zamperini’s (Jack O’Connell) plane comes under heavy defensive fire. Several gunners are killed and pilots Russell Phillips (Domhnal Gleeson) and Hugh Cuppernell (Jai Courtney) inform him that the brakes are shot and it’s nearly five hours back to base. During this weighty moment, Louis recollects his small town upbringing, involving running from the police for petty crimes, getting bullied by schoolchildren for his Italian heritage, and being punished by his parents for various misbehaviors. Eventually, he channels his energy into running for the track and field team, bolstered by his brother Pete’s (Alex Russell) playful denigrations (oddly, an early scene of training mimics “Forrest Gump” – likely on accident). By the time he reaches high school, he’s amazingly fast, garnering the nickname the “Torrance Tornado” throughout California.
Back in the fuselage of the bomber, Louis braces for a crash landing. Shortly after surviving that ordeal, he’s assigned a handful of new crewmembers and given a cobbled-together plane for a rescue mission – but en route, an engine fails and the aircraft plummets into the ocean. Only three soldiers survive; Phillips receives a nasty blow to the head, while Francis McNamara (Finn Wittrock) laments over the hopelessness of their situation and selfishly consumes all the rations, leaving Louis to struggle staying positive. On the third day of being stranded on a lifeboat, with sharks circling the raft, a signal flare going unseen, and a seabird proving inedible, they finally snag a fish to eat raw. They muse over a famous tale of sailors adrift at sea for 24 days, wondering how long they might have to remain bobbing in the unforgiving waters.
By the 18th day, after weathering a storm, the group is blessed with a rainfall. After working up the nerve to wrestle a shark straight out of the water to consume it, they spot another plane (on the 27th day) – only to be shot at by the enemy. Sometime after the 45th day on the Pacific Ocean, the unimaginably exhausted subsisters are miraculously recovered by the Japanese – only to endure further hardships as prisoners of war.
The film continues to tell two stories simultaneously, cutting back and forth between Louis’ running career and his eventual participation in the 1936 Olympics (coincidentally in Germany) and his time in the service. Impressively, “Unbroken” manages to create anticipation in both the competition scenes and the combat sequences (the easier of the two), though the storytelling technique isn’t always effective. Like a television show cliffhanger, the most exciting bits spontaneously segue into the different time period to revisit a piece of a story nearly forgotten during the break. Nevertheless, once the main characters are out on the open waters, the survivalist horrors and proceeding wartime atrocities become truly harrowing. It’s suspenseful, surprising, and unpredictable (at least, for anyone unfamiliar with the true story).
Though it’s Angelina Jolie’s second directorial effort (she also wrote the screenplay for her debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey”), here it is obvious she’s working with a strong script, this time by Joel and Ethan Coen (and Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson), based on the award-winning biographical book by Laura Hillenbrand. During a particularly significant scene, Zamperini is humiliatingly forced to sprint against a guard at a Tokyo POW camp, where malnutrition, weight and muscle loss, and physical beatings have taken a toll on his agility. The problem is that, despite a powerful story of perseverance, Louis’ violent persecution and mental tortures (at one point, he’s allowed to speak to his parents through a Japanese radio program and momentarily given decent food) are so ceaseless that they become overwhelming. The entertainment value of nonstop, brutal punishment (and a lengthy 2 hrs. 17 min. runtime) with little hope of personal retribution or adventuresome escape (after all, biographies like this don’t drastically rewrite history) is limited at best. “We beat them by making it to the end of the war alive,” insists a fellow captive, highlighting the nature of the torment, the attitude toward endurance, and the substantial commentary on forgiveness – and the reason why this important, influential figure’s account isn’t wholly cinematic.
– Mike Massie