By Gary Murray
Starring Jack O’Connell, Miyavi and Domhnall Gleeson
Written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravense and William Nicholson
Directed by Angelina Jolie
Running time 132 min
MPAA Rating PG-13
Selig Film Rating FULL PRICE
The Second World War has fascinated storytellers for generations. An entire world at war brings about just about every emotion that can be expressed and endured. Some of the greatest films ever made have been about different aspects of this conflict. The latest is the tale of a man who survived. He is Louis Zamperini and his story is Unbroken.
This epic tale starts with a young man dealing with being an outcast. Louis Zamperini is a first generation Italian kid, picked on because he’s different. He drinks, smokes and generally is on the road of being a juvenile delinquent. His mother is at her wit’s end on what to do about the boy.
His brother challenges him to be a better person and convinces him to start running. Next we see Louis (Jack O’Connell) as a teen track star that is setting records. This leads to the Olympics that are held in Germany.
It is the games where the world met both Jesse Owens and Adolph Hitler. The audience doesn’t see either man but does see Louis set a record. He knows that the next Olympics will be his game.
Soon after that, World War II breaks out and Louis is in a bomber over the Pacific. There is a massive scene with Louis and his crew leading a bombing raid. In what should be a giant action piece, Director Angelina Jolie gives way too many static shots. She cannot build on the tension and it is a failure of the film. Eventually, we see the men survive the crash of their plane.
The men are given another plane, pieced together from other wrecks. The plane fails mid-flight and the men have to ditch the craft. The film gets much more interesting with the three men stranded on two rafts. There are sharks, weather and lack of supplies. As they struggle with the elements, they also struggle with their impending demise. It is a fascinating study of human endeavor.
They are eventually rescued but by the Japanese Navy. After some harrowing time in the jungle, the men make it to a POW camp in Tokyo. It is run by a man that the men call The Bird (Miyavi). He is a crazed character, who uses kindness and a rattan stick with equal aplomb. Soon, he finds out that Louis is an Olympian and makes him race around the camp. The weakened Louis can barely walk, much less run.
The Bird tries to break Louis over and over, using torture then kindness as a balancing act. The Bird believes in the superiority of the Japanese race and that Louis is an affront to that concept. The prisoners all believe that if the Japanese lose, the guards will just execute all the POWs. Winning the war means their death.
The film twists and turns toward the end of the war and shows the unbreakable spirit of the individual over overwhelming odds. Thus the name Unbroken.
Angelina gets the best from her cast and handles the interpersonal contacts between her actors. Being such an acclaimed actress, she knows the ins and outs of taking the script and making it flesh and blood. The intimate scenes between the men at war ring true.
The problem is that this is more than intimate moments in Unbroken. The bigger action scenes are weak and flat, with no building of tension. The audience is never on their seats while watching the film, there is no emotional tension. The film has its greatest strength with man’s inhumanity to man and not the action.
While the performance of Jack O’Connell is strong and stoic, it is the performance by Miyavi that steals the show. His character believes he is a friend to his POWs and not just a jailer. There is this maniacal smirk on his face where he takes a macabre fascination in demeaning the men in his charge.
Unbroken is a part of my top ten of the year but just barely. It is not a perfect film but it is a film that will resonate with war veterans more than with the MTV generation. It is spiritual film without being an overly religious one. It is also a solid entertainment from Mrs. Brad Pitt.