Fierce, dark, heroic…”Unbroken” is all this and much more. This brilliant film pays tribute to its hero, Louis Zamperini, by presenting a luminous look into the life of an extraordinary man. Masterfully directed by Angelina Jolie with primary screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, “Unbroken” takes us from Zamperini’s boyhood to his life as a bombardier to the endless days he spent on his raft, to his imprisonment and torture and, finally, to his eventual release. It’s all mesmerizing and although there are times you want to look away, you can’t.
Jolie begins the film with mind-boggling scenes of one of Zamperini’s (Jack O’Connell) bombardier missions during WWII. The shots inside the plane are absolutely phenomenal. We feel like we are right there beside the crew. In the midst of the action, we flash-back to a young Louis (C.J. Valleroy) living in Torrance, CA. A child of Italian immigrants, Louis is frequently bullied for his heritage and is well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. Fortunately when his older brother, Pete (first played by John D’Leo and then Alex Russell ), sees how fast Louis can run when trying to escape from some crime he’s just committed, he decides Louis has it in him to run track. It’s Pete who sets him on the straight and narrow with the words that remain with Louis for the rest of his life, “If you can take it, you can make it.” Pete’s influence is a success and Louis turns into a track phenom. He becomes part of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, coming in 8th in his event and sets a record for speed in the final lap in the 5000-meter run.
“Unbroken” then picks up where the war action left off. We now know that after the Olympics Louis enlisted (off-screen) where he became part of a bombardier squad. The squad is in the middle of a search and rescue mission in the Pacific when their plane fails them and crashes into the ocean. He and initially two members of the squad survive the crash and endure 47 days on a raft in the Pacific before being captured by the Japanese. They are taken to a Japanese prison camp where, for most of their remaining time in capture, they suffer some absolutely harrowing days under the sadistic watch of Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). Watanabe knows of Louis’ Olympic status and, thus, he is singled out for special torture.
Jolie has done a fantastic job in casting “Unbroken.” C.J. Valleroy as the young Zamperini is terrific and his transformation into the adult Zamperini (O’Connell) is spot-on. O’Connell, so fabulous in “Starred Up” is even better in “Unbroken.” He captures Louis’ spirit…his will to survive perfectly. He gives a truly amazing performance. Also very good is Ishihara as Watanabe, his primary tormentor. His portrayal is never over-the-top. It’s more of an understated malevolence, which is very unsettling.
It’s impossible to exaggerate how affecting “Unbroken” is. The battle scenes are extremely realistic. The days spent on the raft and the conversations between the men feel very real. And, finally, the time in the prison camps is just horrific as we watch the men shrink physically, but never emotionally, before our very eyes. Adding to the film’s ferocity is the powerful score by Alexandre Desplat and the realistic cinematography of Roger Deakins.
Angelina Jolie, the Coen Brothers and Jack O’ Connell…all have given us a film that is truly worthy of its subject, Louis Zamperini. Although you may have to sit in your seat for a while to regain your composure when the film is over, “Unbroken” is not to be missed.
4 nuggets out of 4