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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » Unbroken
Universal // PG-13 // December 25, 2014
Review by Jeff Nelson | posted December 22, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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Some stories are so unbelievable that they prove to be beyond words. Many go untold, while others live within the form of a book, a film, or a television show. In the case of the recently passed Louis Zamperini, his extraordinary story lives in the form of a book written by Laura Hillenbrand, and now a film directed by Angelina Jolie. There are some fairly intense dramas that have come from Hollywood, but none of them can compare to what this man experienced over the course of his life. Filled with moral messages and lessons of faith, Unbroken tells of the serious endurance that was required during this difficult time. However, the narrative and the overall pacing require some patience, which is sure to divide audiences. Regardless of where you stand, at least it's a massive improvement over Jolie's directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey.

Based on a true story, Unbroken follows Olympian Louis Zamperini after a near-fatal plane crash during World War II. Lucky to be alive, he finds himself and a couple of his fellow soldiers stuck on a raft in the middle of the ocean. The answer to his prayers to be saved are bittersweet when they are captured by a Japanese warship. He's ultimately sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, which forces Louis to search deep within himself in order to find the willpower to endure physical and psychological torment.

Screenwriters Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson juxtapose various challenges that Louis has faced over the course of his extraordinary life, but more specifically, how he has managed to stay strong. His older brother, Pete (Alex Russell), is the inspiration that originally placed him on the right path, and kept him going through the most difficult of times. A young Louis was constantly getting into trouble, as he would get into fights and drink alcohol at an extremely young age. His running from authority figures is what ultimately made Pete support his younger brother to pursue track running. As he continues to push himself in each and every race by managing his stamina, he's forced to maintain a similar frame of mind through the various obstacles that he must face throughout the picture. As the story continues to jump between these two separate times of his life, we're able to grasp a more firm understanding of this man's mental strength. This is only further explored as he goes from the plane, to the raft, to the Japanese camp. Unbroken is a relentless and tense character study that understands what concepts to intertwine through each major plot beat.

The given type of dangers continue to change as the story moves from one location to the next. Louis faces dozens of physical ones through the second act, as he's trapped within a small raft with a couple of other survivors in the middle of the ocean. They have an extremely limited amount of food and fresh water, forcing them to hunt for fish and to collect rainwater at every opportunity. However, great white sharks prove to deliver a sense of tension that could easily be compared to the method of Jaws. While they aren't shown very often, we constantly get the feeling that they're right around the raft. This makes us fear an attack every time they are forced to reach out over the water. Violent storms are also a real danger, as the men continue to fight for survival from nature's rage. This ultimately turns into a mix between physical obstacles and psychological torment when he's "rescued" from the small raft in the ocean. He may be on land with a group of fellow American soldiers, but they're subjected to constant mundane tasks and other mind games in order to break them down. Mutsushiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) targets Louis, and continues to subject him to beatings, until he's on the verge of giving up. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary elements of the film is its message of forgiveness. While the film only touches upon this in a subtle fashion, Unbroken is also about knowing when to forgive those who have been the most brutal to us.

Despite the great messages and a strong central story, the screenplay is the source of the majority of the film's issues. It never truly gets within the mind of Louis Zamperini. The entire purpose of the feature is to tell of what this man went through, and while we occasionally feel the intended effect, it isn't depicted as often as it should be. The desperate attempts at survival in the raft and the feeling of hopelessness within the camp allow for a highly immersive experience. However, it still doesn't feel as personal as it should, especially as the psychological warfare begins. It isn't difficult to understand what the screenwriters were trying to achieve, but they aren't always successful. By the time the credits start rolling, it feels as if Louis Zamperini's tremendous story is missing a serious piece of the puzzle that is stopping it from being great. The Coen brothers, LaGravenese, and Nicholson tend to glorify the subject a bit too much, hindering a large amount of the emotion that could have been present otherwise. There's a lot of phenomenal material here, but it isn't all presented as well as it should be.

Nevertheless, Angelina Jolie is working with a stellar cast that will surely pull audiences further into the most immersive qualities that the film has to offer. Jack O'Connell is brilliant as Louis Zamperini. While it's physically transformative, he touches upon an emotional side of himself that hasn't been seen on screen until now. The anguish and utter fear that Louis feels when being first captured by the Japanese is absolutely heart-wrenching, as portrayed by O'Connell. This is a massive step in this young man's career that will surely put him on the path to more similarly fascinating roles. Takamasa Ishihara is excellent in the role of Mutsuhiro Watanabe. While not recognized as a professional actor, he could easily fool anybody into thinking that he's been doing this all of his life. Ishihara is wildly successful, especially in the intense mental face-offs between Louis and himself. Other supporting performances from Garrett Hedlund, Alex Russell, Finn Wittrock, and Domhnall Gleeson are all great in displaying this man's story.

While this may only be Jolie's second feature in the director's chair, she brings a beautiful picture to the screen. Along with cinematographer Roger Deakins, Unbroken proves to deliver one of the most stunning pictures of the year. Primarily sporting yellow and light greens in its color palette, this is an extremely polished product that pulls us in. The raft sequences have a terrifyingly large scale that makes us feel just as stranded as the characters themselves, while still displaying the sheer beauty of the ocean and the skies. When the plot moves to the Japanese camp, the shots are much tighter, making for a more claustrophobic tone that causes the audience to feel trapped within the very same tight areas. There are some pieces of visual symbolism that feel a bit tacky, such as when a shadow of Louis holding up a heavy piece of wood has a striking resemblance to Jesus on the cross. Otherwise, this is a visually awe-inspiring film.

Few movie ideas possess the power of Louis Zamperini's life story, making it a potentially exceptional silver screen adaptation. Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn't entirely manage to get within the mind of Louis, causing audiences to feel distanced from the tremendous story taking place. However, when it manages to successfully deliver the intended tension and emotion, this is a truly outstanding piece of cinema. The story itself is so fascinating, that we can't help but be intrigued by this feature's themes of mental strength, faith, and forgiveness. Louis Zamperini was a man whose stories and messages will stand the test of time. Simply elevated by Jack O'Connell's game-changing performance, this is a film that can't possibly go unnoticed. It's a visual triumph for Angelina Jolie and her team, and they should be proud of it. Unbroken is an empowering story of humanity that deserves to be felt. Recommended.

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