The True Life Story Of An Olympian Turned Soldier

Director: ANGELINA JOLIE/2014

Angelina Jolie directs Unbroken, the true life story of Louis Zamperini, the Olympian turned soldier who is captured by the Japanese Navy following a plane crash and 47 days drifting at sea. Jack O’Connell (300: Rise of an Empire) plays the adult version of Zamperini and it’s a convincing performance of a man who rises above each situation, embodying the mantra spoken to him by his brother, when as a youth was trying to make the track team, that said “if you can take it, you can make it”.

The story comes from the biography of Zamperini written by Laura Hillenbrand, who was also responsible for writing the screenplay for Seabiscuit. The screenplay for Unbroken hosts a who’s who of writing pedigree including Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, True Grit, No Country for Old Men), William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Miserables), and Richard LaGravenese (Water for Elephants, The Fisher King). The cinematography is from the legendary Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men, The Shawshank Redemption) and features beautiful shots from vast oceans, to the close quarters inside a WWII bomber.

Despite this pedigree, the film never quite achieves its ultimate goal of appealing to all. This is not to say it’s a bad film. It’s actually quite good. Zamperini’s life is an inspiration. The story is already well known, and beloved by many. For some, the ending of the film will not be enough, as closing texts don’t truly convey the power of the real story of a man who later in life chose to forgive his Japanese captors from the POW camp due to his deep Christian faith that compelled him to do so in spite of having every reason to hold onto hate. The film will be enough to direct people back to Hillenbrand’s biography where they will get more of the details of Zamperini’s life that are not covered by the film.

Where it falls short of its goal is that despite its solid filmmaking pedigree, it is an exercise of trying to appeal to too many potential audiences and watering down the final product.  It is a tense war film, but it is shot in a way that is never too heavy handed for general audiences.  Most of the brutality that Zamperini endured is implied with the camera cutting away when the worst of the violence against him is done.  The film spends so much time in the prison camp, that his life after is just glossed over with text and a few brief shots, including actual footage of an 80-year old Zamperini carrying the Olympic torch in Japan for the 1988 Winter Games.  This was a welcomed closing, but more of this part of his life would have truly shown how he remained “unbroken” in his ability to forgive, and to even embrace those that did him harm.

The strongest part of the film is a grueling look at Zamperini and two of his fellow soldiers trying to endure 47 days at sea following a plane crash while on a rescue mission.  Domhnall Gleeson (About Time, Calvary) plays Russell Alan ‘Phil’ Phillips, and the weight loss and conditions that he and Jack O’Connell simulate in the film is a powerful look at survival, and can only make you marvel at what the real life figures actually endured.  But this is only the frying pan, and being picked up by the Japanese Navy is the fire.

The film is quite long, but fortunately the story is compelling enough to keep you focused. It is also a study in contrasts. In real life, Zamperini was a man who stared his enemy down and did not break. He lived the mantra, “if you can take it, then you can make it”. He took everything that his enemy could give him and continued to stand until passing away this year at the age of 97. Truly this was the “greatest generation”.

The world in which this film is being released is the opposite. It’s a world that acquiesces to the demands of those who wish to do us harm. The Sony handling of being hacked and giving in to demands to pull their film The Interview, is everything that Zamperini’s mantra is not. If anything, maybe we need a film like Unbroken to remind us of the intrepid nature of the human spirit and that we can stare down our oppressors, rise above, and endure. More importantly, as Zamperini modeled throughout his life, not only can we endure, but we can forgive and be truly healed. This is not just a lesson for Sony, but a lesson for us all.