Thursday, January 1, 2015

Film Review: Unbroken

Even the best stories are hurt if the storyteller takes too long.  And that's the Achilles heal of an otherwise moving film in Unbroken.

The story is the true story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), a troubled kid who was able to focus all of his chaotic energy into running track until he becomes a US Olympian.  But then WWII comes and Louis is a bombardier who becomes lost at sea and eventually a POW by the brutal Japanese, particularly the brutal commandant of his camp known as "The Bird" (Takamasha Ishihara).  What transpires is a marathon of endurance and pain that pushes Louis to his breaking point and beyond.

Angelina Jolie does a superbly beautiful job of capturing the epic scale of the story.  The action scenes are thrilling.  And it is extremely difficult to make 3 men surviving on tiny rafts for weeks on end visually interesting, but she makes those scenes feel open and claustrophobic at the same time.  She has a fantastic sense of atmosphere so that every scene has a visual feel that corresponds to the emotional tempo of the film.

She also does a fantastic job of incorporating strong Christian visuals and themes.  She doesn't hit you over the head with a sermon, but she taps into the potent Christian and Christological images.  That isn't to say that Louis is portrayed as a perfect saint, but he is incredibly heroic.  O'Connell always shows how Louis is fragile under all of his pain.  He is not as stoic as the trailers portray him.  His fear, his pain is always on the surface.  In a scene where he believes he is about to be beheaded, O'Connell plays the wonderful contradiction of bravery and terror at the same time.  

At one point in the movie, Louis is asked to do propaganda for the Japanese war effort.  There was such a stark contrast between his life at the camp and his time in downtown Tokyo that it was almost like coming up for air.  And Louis is forced to choose between betraying his country and enduring more hell.

The two biggest problems with the movie are it's length and its supporting characters.  Unbroken is way too long.  You could easily remove 45 minutes of the film.  And yet, ironically, the most potentially emotional part of the story is taken care of in an epilogue instead of seeing it on film.  The other problem is that the supporting characters barely make an impression.  With the exception of his fellow crash survivor Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), I couldn't tell you the name of any of his other companions or fellow prisoners.  They were so blank and interchangeable that it made harder to attach to the story.

But when you finish the film, you are filled with a sense of admiration for not just Louis, but for all of the soldiers who fought and suffered so that we can have our freedom.  And that is no bad thing.

4 out of 5 stars.

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