In her sophomore effort as a director, Angelia Jolie brings the true story of Olympian and veteran, Louis Zamperini , to life on screen. The film is an adaptation of the novel "Unbroken" written by Laura Hillenbrand and has been adapted into a screenplay by the beloved Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen.
Opening in the middle of the Pacific Arena of World War II just before a bombardier aircraft is about to bomb a Japanese target, we are introduced to Louis Zamperini played by the very capable Jack O'Connell ('Starred Up', ''71'). Wonderfully sound mixed, the fighter jets maneuver with precision in airborne combat suggesting a more modern era of war. Successful in their mission, it isn't until the soldiers are back at base following a nail biting landing before casualties can be accounted for. From here things move backward in time into Louis Zamperini's childhood.
A series of flashbacks in the first act of the film offer an inside look into his troubled youth and his introduction to track. As a young boy, Zamperini is a troublemaker disguising milk jars with paint and filling them up with liquor and admiring young girls from underneath their skirts beneath the bleachers. Constantly having to escape authority or bullies on foot, those around him soon notice Zamperini's natural speed. No one more than young Pete Zamperini, his brother, played by John D'Leo, is convinced of Louis' natural talents and begins to coach him. Fast-forwarding through his track career the film stops briefly to explain his qualifying time for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Munich. Trying to build suspense and intensity, Zamperini's Olympic event in Munich quickly paces back and forth between O'Connell's race around a very noticeable CGI populated stadium and his family listening intently by radio back home in the U.S.
Returning to the Pacific, the crew and Louis are only on terra ferme for a short while before they receive new orders for a recovery mission. Over the Pacific things go terribly wrong with their aircraft when both left wing engines fail and a very immediate crash water landing ensues. When the chaos has ended, Zamperini is only one among the survivors that include Phil played by Domnhall Gleeson and Mac played by Finn Wittrock. Deploying two life rafts, the three men settle onboard for what will end up by forty-seven days at sea. Probably the least effective part of the film, O'Connell, Gleeson & Wittrock portray the hopelessness of being caught at sea without resources as best as possible. One scene in particular involving the conquest, carving and consuming of a seagull that leads to nausea overboard appears more comedic than desperate. Rescued at sea by a Japanese naval vessel, the only two surviving G.I.'s are immediately imprisoned.
After being detained briefly in tiny interrogation chambers, Phil and Louis are separated with Louis being assigned to a more permanent prison camp with other allied G.I.s taken prisoner. The director of the camp, Mutsushiro Watanabe and better known as "The Bird" is played by Miyavi, an unbalanced, erratically behaving lunatic that sets his sights squarely on Zamperini early on. The Bird seems intent on punishing Zamperini and breaking his spirit by force rather than deprivation. Miyavis emotionless stare and heartless attempts to break Zamperini propels the last act of the film. By the time the war concludes, the contentious relationship between detainer and detainee has had a subversive effect on Zamperini.
Director of photography, Roger Deakins, has proved to be a master behind the camera creating memorable images in 'Skyfall' and 'Prisoners' most recently. In 'Unbroken' Mr. Deakins seems largely interested in using shadows and angles to dress up the visual content. Certainly one of the greatest working cinematographers around, his images appear too glossy and colorful instead of breathing out the gloom and despair of the Japanese prison camps or the time spent at sea. Scenes of U.S. G.I.'s shoveling coal and covered in coal dust at one of the prison camps appear more like orphans from 'Oliver Twist' than prisoners of war.
Director Jolie, clearly passionate for this narrative, strives to convey the powers of the human spirit while highlighting forgiveness and reconciliation as major themes. Compared to her first feature 'In the Land of Blood and Honey' it is quite clear that Mrs. Jolie's sensibilities lie within horrific human events and the ability to extract a silver lining from within. Her lauded humanitarian efforts strike well within reach of why she chose to make this film. The screenplay lacks depth and is certainly not distinguishable Coen brothers work. The film is largely held up by O'Connell's performance, which is another fine example of this young actor's range and abilities. Focusing mainly on his performance is extremely satisfying if not gut wrenching.
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