“Unbroken” Movie Review

     There have been several high profile actors over the years who have successfully made the jump from the front of the camera to behind it with two prime examples being Mel Gibson (“Braveheart”) and Kevin Costner (“Dances with Wolves”).  I have to figure it’s an win for the marketing department when a film cast with unknowns can boast a tagline that says “from director Angelina Jolie”.  At first, the reaction is “wait, she directs movies too?”, but then you realize her film, “Unbroken”, chronicles the true story of Olympian and World War II veteran Louis Zamperini and then interest seems to heighten.  The studio set up “Unbroken” to be the kind of Christmas time feel good story that usually does brisk business over the holiday season and the film itself for the most part delivers on that promise.  Whether or not this kind of fare is for you will depend greatly on what you are willing to sit through in order to receive the payoff.

     For the better part of 137 grueling minutes, Jolie plants her camera directly in the middle of several long and brutal tests of what the human body is capable of enduring.  In affect, we the audience feel as though we are with our collection of heroes as they are forced to survive multiple circumstances that go well beyond anything a person should ever have to experience.  She tells Zamperini’s story over three main set pieces with an occasional flashback inserted in order to give a little more depth to what we are witnessing in the present.  The impact of what we see on screen wanes a bit as each sequence progresses, inevitably dragging on because the circumstances seem to dictate it.  There’s no doubt the situations these men found themselves in were as gut wrenching as any you will ever see on film, but there does come a point where for pacing reasons Jolie would’ve been better served to move the story along.

     Zamperini is part of a bombing run over the skies of the Pacific Ocean and the conflict with Japan during WWII.  Jolie brings her camera directly within the bowels of the bomber plane, an aircraft that seems to have tin foil for walls and is quite rickety considering the job it is being commissioned to do.  The plane is occupied by a collection of gunners on the bottom, rear, and sides of the plane with it’s under belly serving as a bomb dropping compartment.  Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is the commanding officer of this particular plane which is being flown by pilots Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Cup (Jai Courtney) into what appears to be a suicide mission.  As the anti aircraft fire begins and a swarm of enemy planes attack, our heroes are intent on accomplishing their mission, but it seems casualties within are more of a certainty then actually hitting their target.  The sequence is yet another viewpoint as to the long odds our servicemen faced when going into battle during the well documented events of WWII.

     Perhaps unnecessarily, Jolie leaves these aerial battle sequences mid flight and flashes back to Zamperini’s childhood where I think we are meant to learn how he was able to develop such a tremendous fighting spirit.  Zamperini is a model for your typical American underdog story, not unlike “Rocky” in which he has a tendency to fall behind, only to battle back at the end.  This is seen several times as his experience as an Olympic track competitor has him finishing strong at a point in the race where all others have exhausted or have quit.  Obviously, these are skills that will serve him well in the future.  It could be argued Jolie may have blanketed the audience with a dose of foreshadowing some may deem to be a little too thick.

     When a second air mission goes horribly wrong, Zamperini finds himself, along with two other survivors, on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with little food and water and virtually no hope of rescue.  This sequence occupies the middle hour of the film and at times does feel as though we are with them for the duration of the 47 days they had to survive out there.  No doubt this was tough to script for screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen, who did an admirable job sparing us of the corny “Red Tails” cockpit dialogue they easily could’ve included in the first act.  Jolie clearly wants us to feel the blisters from the endless sunburn on this faces and the intense hunger and dehydration they face when they are forced to somehow trap one of the sharks that seemingly had been circling their raft the entire time.

     Bad becomes worse when Zamperini and Phil are spotted by a Japanese boat and taken to a prisoner of war camp.  Earlier in 2014, the film “The Railway Man”, also a true story and based on the experiences of Eric Lomax as played by Colin Firth, explored many of the same atrocities committed within these WWII Japanese prisoner of war camps.  Similar to Lomax, Zamperini is almost immediately singled out by a sociopathic overzealous Japanese commander, Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), who consistently uses him as an example for the other prisoners by exposing him to brutal beatings and needless torture.  The film’s final hour is primarily dedicated to what plays as a one on one power struggle that always ends with Watanabe as the victor simply because of his position.  We, as an audience, experience not one, but two different prison camps Zamperini was forced to be a prisoner in and yet the brutality never seems to cross the line.  There’s plenty of quantity that takes an enormous amount of screen time, but you get the idea little of this constant prodding is effective in the slightest.  Perhaps the film’s PG-13 rating held back the most brutal of the atrocities, leaving Jolie with only the option to shoot scenes of prisoners being beaten repeatedly and yet not sustaining the kind of injuries those beatings likely would’ve resulted in.  The result of this style makes the film play more like an inspirational tribute than a realistic depiction.

     As a passion project by Jolie, “Unbroken” plays as a solid yet unspectacular historical war picture with outstanding performances from a young, up and coming cast that includes two names, Jack O’Connell and Domhnall Gleeson, that I’m certain we will be hearing about in the future.  This is by no means an awards contender, but it does feature several high points.  To honor someone such as Zamperini and to tell his story in a way that can be consumed by people of all ages is certainly worthy of high praise for Jolie and her team.  She may have fallen into the trap many do in which she opted to slather her film in a little too much Hollywood gloss, rather than tell the story with the kind of grit and realism that likely would’ve brought the film to another level entirely, but Jolie, nonetheless, has crafted a fine effort for what is only her second film as a feature director. GRADE: B