Review: Unbroken

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UnbrokenEarlier this year, Louie Zamperini died at the age of 97. He was the son of Italian immigrants, born in 1917 in New York state. His family relocated to Torrance, California where he was on the verge of becoming a hooligan until his older brother Pete got him involved with the school track team. By the time he was 19, he had qualified for the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the 5000-meter race. 

An entire feature-length film could probably be made just about his career as a runner, but the full scope of the man's endurance is told here in Angelina Jolie's second directorial effort. Unbroken really feels like three movies in one, weaving in the story of Zamperini's Olympic success, his time in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and his eventual struggles as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. In the film, British actor Jack O'Connell (Starred Up) gives an emotionally raw and physically demanding career-making performance as Zamperini. 

Joel and Ethan Coen adapated Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 book (with screenplay assistance from Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson) and I think that the first half of the film truly shines as it shifts through time from Zamperini's childhood to the plane crash in 1943 over the Pacific Ocean that found him and two other fellow soldiers (Finn Wittrock, Noah and Domhnall Gleeson, About Time) stuck in a life boat for 47 days. 

There is an intensity to the film's air combat sequences that really make you feel as though you're in the plane with these young men, despite the fact that the quality on some of the effects is limited. As the story unfolds, it truly makes you wonder how anybody could stay so strong for so long. Zamperini never gave up hope, no matter what happened to him, that he would survive. It was difficult inititally for me during the scenes where the men where stranded in the Pacific Ocean to not recall last year's All Is Lost, but that was a fleeting feeling. As days turn to weeks, the desperation between the men becomes palpable and I began to forget that we hadn't even gotten to the worst part of Zamperini's life. 

After 47 days drifting in the ocean in perilous conditions without food and water beyond the first few days and only random amounts of rainfall, the worst was indeed yet to come. From there, he was captured by the Japanese Navy and endured more than two years of brutality in a POW camp led by a ruthless prison guard nicknamed "The Bird" (brilliantly played by Japanese rockstar Miyavi). Jolie doesn't skirt around the extremely violent tactics used in the camp -- one incredibly difficult scene involves what must be over a hundred fellow prisoners lining up and being told they have to punch Zamperini in the face as hard as they can. Once "The Bird" becomes aware of Zamperini's Olympic history, he really enjoys the idea of extra punishments to break him down and show that he's not special inside the camp. 

In addition to the excellent performances, the story is captured with gorgeous cinematography from frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins. Using carefully composed widescreen images, the movie looks incredible and is also punctuated by a moving score from French composer Alexandre Desplat (who just this year also did the music for Godzilla, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Monuments Men and The Imitation Game). 

Unbroken is far from perfect, but it's a powerful story of resilience and resistance. With all of the CIA torture documents in the news again, the movie feels like a very prescient reminder for us to learn some lessons from history and to stop justifying this depraved behavior.