Review: “Unbroken” (**½)

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Jack O’Connell stars in “Unbroken”
Watching Jack O’Connell’s performance as the raffish, far-reaching World War II bombardier Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” you can’t help but admire and relish in the unbreakable resilience of the human spirit. People are rather extraordinary, and this film is a testament to those people who push the boundaries of what’s possible. Because, at the heart of it, beyond the bawdy and often unforgivable wartime treatments and mistreatments, “Unbroken” is a story saturated with sincerity. O’Connell enlivens the material while still leaving room for periphery characters to hem themselves in. But, to me, the film itself often felt more angular than fluid, more forceful than purposeful, and more eager to embolden the highlights of Zamperini’s life than simply allow us explore them ourselves.

“Unbroken” is Zamperini’s story. There’s rarely a scene in which he’s not featured. As a young boy, wily and pure-hearted, Zamperini had a serious knack for discovering trouble. He was always stealing and, as a consequence, was always running. Louie was always running from trouble. And for a good part of his youth, that was his life: stealing and running, stealing and running. Cops would often deliver him home, his family would worry and strain, and then Louie’d wake up the next morning and do it all over again. All of this changed when his brother, Pete, while watching Louie, once again, run from trouble, realized just how fast his little brother was. Pete made it his personal job to tame Louie, much to everyone’s relief. Pete turns Louie into a runner, and for the first time in his life, Louie has direction. He even makes it to the Olympics. And then Pearl Harbor happened. And Louie enlisted. What happens next is a story so incredible and so beautiful that it’s hard to believe it’s true.

“Unbroken” is a film made without apology and sanctimony and does it’s best to sympathize with even the most wince-inducingly hard and unforgivable of characters. Particularly, the Bird. The Bird, an Imperial Japanese Army sergeant, is the by far the most bawdy, spiny and putatively evil character of the film. The Bird’s relationship with his POWs, particularly Zamperini, affords the film it’s most unveiled and brutal scenes, awarding it it’s title “Unbroken.” There are two scenes in particular that effectively create this moral dynamic and expertly set the stage and tenor for the film and highlight Zamperini’s spirit. The first involves Louie being punched in the face by every single POW, which is The Bird’s far-reaching consequence to disrespect. And Louie takes it—punch after punch after punch. He even helps his friends and fellow soldiers to do it, taunting them and encouraging them with ‘Come on!’ and ‘Do it, DO IT!’ With every punch he takes, Louie becomes more firm footed; this resilience is his way of winning. And this ‘always get back up’ motif layers the film from beginning to end. In the second scene, Louie, coal covered and starving, is forced to hold a metal beam over his head for as long as he possible can. If it falls, the Japanese shoot him. It’s in this moment that Louie evokes the living, breathing definition of unbreakable.

I’m probably not the best person to write this review. With Angelina Jolie’s direction and a spry script penned by the Coen brothers (“Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski”), Richard LaGravenese (“The Bridges of Madison County,” “P.S. I Love You”) and William Nicholson (“Gladiator,” “Les Miserables”), “Unbroken” can’t be anything less than good. And in all fairness to the film, it’s not. It is a very good film; that’s probably ubiquitous. To me, it’s not a great film, and the reason for this is very simple. I didn’t love “Unbroken” the film, because I loved “Unbroken” the book, by Laura Hillenbrand about ten billion times more. And I finished the text on Sunday… just four days before having seen it’s cinematic counterpart, and all of Hillenbrand’s text and insight and language and storytelling techniques were very fresh in my mind. Jolie honors the source material and obviously respects and admires Zamperini, and quite clearly is a very talented director, but there are things in the film that I would have excluded. And conversely, there were parts of text that I think, had they been in the film, would have been very emotionally stimulating and effectively moved the story. If I had to choose between the book or the movie, I’d pick the book every time. And if you don’t want to choose between the two, then give yourself some time between the two, because when you don’t, you can’t help but compare the two mediums.

I’d give this film 2.5 out of 5 stars. Also, we got the theatre late and were forced to sit in the front row. When you do see it, don’t sit in the front row… or, I suppose, if you’d like, do; it makes for a fuller, more integrated, and far more overwhelming (not sure if that’s good or bad) experience.

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