Who would have thought that blood-vial-wearing Angelina Jolie could make a straight-forward World War II movie, the kind your granddad, wearing his VFW regalia, would love. It’s one of those testaments to courage and fortitude that can be eye-rolling, and I don’t think any profanity was used, directly belying the evidence–I just read Ernie Pyle’s comment on being embedded with U.S. troops: “If I hear one more fucking soldier saying fucking I will cut my fucking throat.”
Despite the Hallmark Hall of Fame aspects of Unbroken, Jolie has made a damn good film. Of course, her best decision was using Roger Deakins as her D.P., as this is a stunningly good-looking film, from the violent beauty of a dogfight miles in the sky, the desolation of men stranded in a life raft for 45 days, to the industrial gray of a coal barge.
Unbroken is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s wildly successful book about Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell). He was a juvenile delinquent who became a world-class runner, appearing in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. He doesn’t win, but hopes to go to the 1940 Games in Tokyo. Instead, he heads there as a POW. A comrade tells him, “be careful what you wish for.”
The story begins with an impressively-filmed dogfight as Zamperini’s plane makes a bombing run on a Japanese target. They take some flak, and limp home. The pilot is the calm Domnhall Gleeson, who is not shy about his faith. They later go on a rescue mission, but the plane they are given is a deathtrap, losing engines and crash-landing. O’Connell, Gleeson, and Finn Wittrock survive in a life raft. For 45 days they drift, catching fish. When they are picked up by Japanese troops, O’Connell tells Gleeson, “I’ve got good news and bad news.”
The rest of the film is the brutal treatment they receive in the Japanese prison camp. The commander is Watanabe, played by a kind of sensual reptilian evil by Miyavi, a Japanese pop-star with no prior acting experience. It’s another choice by Jolie that pays off, as though Miyavi may not be a good technical actor, but his use of his natural showmanship is thoroughly convincing.
O’Connell is quite good, but Garret Hedlund, as the highest-ranking officer in the barracks, steals some scenes with movie-star presence.
Where the film sags is the early scenes of Zamperini’s ill-spent youth. He’s incorrigible–drinking, smoking, stealing–the scourge of the neighborhood, who already mistrust his immigrant Italian family. The transformation, which happens when his elder brother encourages him to join the track team, seems awfully easy, and I imagine there’s more there. But the battle of will between Zamperini and Watanabe, while cliched, makes the film resonate for me.
Jolie could have given Unbroken a more gritty film, but instead she went the complete opposite direction and made a film that could have been made in the ’40s (without as much blood). I can’t fault her for that decision, as this was the story she wanted to tell, and the one Zamperini (who was her neighbor) deserved.
My grade for Unbroken: B+.