"Unbroken" is based on the excellent award-winning inspirational book (2010) by Laura Hillebrand, who has an eye for detail and description. It is a biography of the exciting life of Louis Silvie Zamperini of Torrance, California. This review includes several details that were omitted in the movie, included to clarify certain situations.
Louis Zamperini (C.J. Valleroy as young Louie, Jack O'Connell in the title role) was restless and incorrigible as a Californian youth. Bullied, he was a juvenile delinquent. His older brother Pete (John D'Leo, Alex Russell), however, began to take more interest in him and became his mentor when Louie decided to run track. Pete rode his bike as Louie ran alongside him; later he ran far ahead. By high school Louie was setting state and national records: "The Torrance Tornado" became the fastest high school runner in US history. At age 19 he was already in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games even though his body was still too young (undeveloped) to win a medal. Nevertheless he surprised even Hitler when he ran the fastest last lap of the 5,000-meter race in 56 seconds. Although robbed of his chance to break a world track record and run an under four-minute mile at the now-canceled 1940 Olympics, Louie continues to train in the vain hope that war will end by 1944, the next scheduled games.
At film's beginning Louie is a flight lieutenant, a World War II bombardier on a B-24 Liberator that has just completed a successful raid on the Japanese-held island of Nauru in the south Pacific (1943). Although the airplane is shot up and crew members are wounded, the crew limps back successfully to base at Funafuti (now Tuvalu). The next mission involves rescuing a downed B-24 crew near the island of Palmyra. But Louie's crew is given "The Green Hornet," an airplane that was not really fly-worthy. Sure enough an engine fails at an inopportune time and the plane has to be ditched over the vast Pacific Ocean (27 May 1943). There was no bail out because of the notorious shark-infested waters. Three of eleven crew members survive (Louie, Phil, Mac); they occupy two rubber rafts lashed together. One of them, friend Allen "Phil" Phillip (Domhnall Gleason) has a head wound. The scenes involving the albatross and sharks are as described in the book. Sharks constantly ran their bodies and fins along the raft bottom; the men could feel them (Yikes!). The book describes how more than one of the smaller sharks actually leaped onto the raft; a timely oar saved Louie's head. Then a twenty-foot long Great White slammed against the raft bottom, sending three men into the air. Luckily they landed atop the raft. Francis McNamara ("Mac," Finn Wittrock) eats all of the rationed chocolate, the only food. Eventually catatonic, he expires. In violation of the Geneva Convention, a Japanese Zero strafes them. After a record 47 harrowing days of thirst and starvation at sea on rubber rafts, the two survivors receive both good and bad news: they are rescued by the enemy.
After interrogation at notorious Kwajalein, where prisoners were previously executed, Louie and Phil are eventually sent first to Ofuna Prisoner of War (POW) camp, then Omori in Tokyo Bay. Right away Louie is targeted by sadistic Japanese Corporal Watanabe ("The Bird," Takamasa Ishiara), who constantly beats him unmercifully. Although the Geneva Convention excludes officers from work details, many are forced into labor. Not working meant that one-half of the already meager rations were cut. Getting enough food to avoid starvation was problematic because of pilferage. Foods allocated for prisoners were stolen by both Japanese military and civilians and sold on the black market. Although Red Cross relief packages had been sent to the POWs, they too were confiscated. To avoid starvation, POWs had to do their own pilfering! (At war's end 1500 unopened Red Cross boxes were discovered locked in a prison storehouse!) The book further describes how Louie and other men were used as test subjects for experiments in biological / chemical warfare. Cloudy liquid forcibly injected into arms caused dizziness and nausea.
Serendipity strikes Louie when Japanese intelligence discovers that American military has mistakenly assumed his death. Knowing that the capture of an American Olympic athlete has propaganda value, the Japanese allow Louie to radio broadcast a harmless message that he is alive and well. After that Louie gets a nice meal in a Japanese cafeteria. But Louie is soon approached by high level Japanese civilians, who want him to disparage America over airwaves. As Louie cannot act in good conscience, it is back to POW camp with Watanabe. Towards war's end, Louie is transferred to the grimy coal barges on Japan's west coast (Naeotsu). War's end and homecoming cannot come soon enough (1945). The instincts that helped Louie endure his mutinous youth had helped keep him alive in despairing situations. Although his post-traumatic stress disorder and religious conversion were skipped, closing captions briefly explain that Louie married and later returned to Japan to forgive his captors for their cruel treatment. The exception was Watanabe, the Bird; he was assumed dead. Not until 1997 did Louie discover that Watanabe was still alive; he died in 2003. The ending shows the real life footage of Zamperini as an old man running the torch for the Winter Olympics (1998), not far from his old POW camp. Louie lived until 2014, dying just a few months before picture release.
Although the movie doesn't cover Louie's post-war years, it is still entertaining. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and won several others. One should not expect the picture to be as detailed as the book. Perhaps the feature could have been extended by, say, thirty minutes; Angelina Jolie directed. The screenplay is decent enough and Roger Deakins' cinematography is excellent. Jack O'Connell plays the tough Italian wonderfully and is inspiring as a man constantly beaten down but who mentally defeats his enemies.
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