The Bock’s Office: ‘Unbroken’ mangled by poor storytelling
January 8, 2015
If your favorite part of a war movie is anything that doesn't involve bullets or punches flying, "Unbroken" may not be the movie for you. If the aforementioned is in fact your preference, and this film doesn't fill your quota, perhaps professional therapy is the way to go.
In 1943, Louie Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) is contributing to the United States' war effort as a bombardier for the Army, a far cry from his youthful days in California, where his troubled childhood only was turned around once he discovered a talent for running. World War II may have interrupted his athletic career, but he's happy to serve his country nonetheless.
Louie's survival skills are put to the test when he and two of his fellow soldiers (Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock) are the only survivors of a plane crash, left to float around the Pacific in a pair of life rafts with little hope of rescue for weeks.
Picked up by the Japanese military once he is near death, Louie is forced into a POW camp where he and other Allied fighters are demoralized by the harsh conditions and the sadistic head of the prison (Miyavi), who zeroes in on Louie in particular as someone he needs to destroy.
O'Connell has an agreeable showcase as the never-say-die real-life figure Zamperini, whose perseverance as a track star might have prepared him for the kind of treatment he'd receive during wartime, but talk about going the extra mile. You can feel his pain as he gets beaten repeatedly, almost never doing anything to instigate it yet still holding on to that tiny bit of dignity that remains.
Japanese music star Miyavi is mesmerizing as notorious war criminal Mutsuhiro Watanabe, better known to the men he oversees as "The Bird" for his knack for seeing and hearing all. The guards of "Schindler's List" or "Stalag 17" have nothing on this guy, who metes out punishment in unequal amounts based on his whims, in this case focusing his hatred for America on the kid who represented the US in the Olympics.
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Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund and Jai Courtney are fine as the men who also suffer at the hands of the Japanese, but we only get a fraction of their stories as the attention stays on Louie.
The 2010 biography of Zamperini by Laura Hillenbrand provides the basis for this story, with a screenplay that's had involvement by the Coen brothers, among others, but it's still a little shocking that it took this long to get a film going about the noteworthy figure — who died only months before the movie's release — who is rumored to have stolen Hitler's personal flag during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but no, that's not in the movie.
As a second-time director, Angelina Jolie goes for a feel that tries to be old-fashioned and a new kind of war feature at the same time, a combination that doesn't really work. The physical violence that's on display might disturb casual viewers of today's films, but it won't be enough to merit a second glance from those who are already desensitized to it.
The psychological effect of Louie's torment — part of which comes from a refusal to denounce his home country via radio broadcast — is well captured, yet you barely get a sense of that within all the people around him, which doesn't work since combat is a group experience.
As a story of one man's personal journey, "Unbroken" is an occasionally inspiring movie, though its weakness comes from a lack of interest in portraying the bigger picture and extent of people that made up WWII. At any rate, it's encouraging to know that one man can have an endless barrage of misery like that and still stay standing proud.