his death this July, Louis Zamperini will still be honored as the posthumous grand
marshal of the upcoming Rose Parade. His honors were often unconventional.
Although he did not medal at the 1936 Olympics, he captured the world’s
attention with his record-setting final lap of the 5,000-meter. He intended to
build on his performance at 1940 Olympics, scheduled to be hosted by Tokyo.
Unfortunately, he would come to Japan under radically different circumstances. Angelina
Jolie brings Zamperini’s harrowing true story to the big screen with a respect
and conviction that make Unbroken (trailer here) one of the more refreshingly old fashioned Christmas
was always a bit of an unruly kid, but at least it helped him develop his
natural speed. With his brother’s encouragement, Zamperini channeled his raw
talent, becoming a local track star and a surprisingly exciting Olympic longshot.
Then WWII erupted. The Olympics would be canceled until 1948. Commissioned in
the army, Zamperini had a string of good luck as a bombardier, but fortune
turns when he is dispatched on a so-called rescue mission in a malfunctioning
forty-seven grueling days, Zamperini and two comrades were adrift on open
waters with no supplies to speak of. Frankly, he and fellow survivor Russell
Phillips were not rescued, per se. They were taken into custody by the Imperial
Japanese military. Unfortunately, he attracts the attention of Corporal Matsuhiro
Watanabe (a.k.a. “The Bird”) in the worst way possible. Recognizing Zamperini’s
inner fortitude, Watanabe sets out to break his spirit and his body.
Jolie and a battery of screenwriters (including William Nicholson and the Coen
Brothers) let the Bird off easy. According to published accounts, he was unrepentantly
brutal, well earning his place on MacArthur’s list of forty most wanted war
criminals (#23, grimly impressive for a non-commissioned officer). They really
could have easily waved the bloody shirt to a greater extent, but instead they
chose to focus on Zamperini’s remarkable resiliency. In this respect, the film
it quite true to history, depicting the Olympian’s refusal to make propaganda
broadcasts in exchange for easier living conditions and many of the resulting
punishments Watanabe meted out upon him.
her credit, Jolie also forthrightly incorporates the role faith played in
fortifying Zamperini, but the film never mentions his long post-war association
with the Billy Graham Crusade. Regardless, she is not intimidated by a little
bit of prayer, a decent serving of American exceptionalism, and a whole lot of
guts and testosterone. She is still quite glamorous, but she’s also more man
than most studio-establishment filmmakers. Of course, that probably explains
why Unbroken has met with mixed
reviews so far.
up ’71 and Private Peaceful, Jack O’Connell gives a career best performance,
concluding his personal war-is-Hell trilogy as the resolute Zamperini. He is
just as baby-faced as in prior films, but he conveys a sense Zamperini has
grown up in a hurry, as was typically the case for his generation. It is a
tough but believably human performance. It is harder to get one’s head around
Japanese glam-rocker Miyavi (Takamasa Ishihara) as the sadistic, vaguely effeminate
Watanabe, but at least he suggests some sort of psychological dysfunction going
on, without excusing or even humanizing the camp guard to any extent.
features several British actors in supporting (and lead) roles, which seems
to be a mistake, if only because it inadvertently invites comparison to films
like Bridge on the River Kwai and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
Nevertheless, it justly celebrates the courage of Zamperini and his fellow
prisoners. Some of the historical set pieces work better than others (the 1932
Olympic sequences feel comparatively small), but it never drags during its one
hundred thirty seven minute running time. Recommended for general audiences, Unbroken is now playing nationwide, including
the AMC Empire in New York.
Labels: Angelina Jolie, Jack O'Connell, Louis Zamperini, WWII Cinema