Unbroken film review: Power of the desire to live
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Takamasa Ishihara, Finn Wittrock
Director: Angelina Jolie
WHEN death finally came to Louis Zamperini, it came in the form of pneumonia. He was 97. That was this past year — 70-odd years after he had participated in the Olympics, fought in World War II, survived being stranded on a raft at sea for 47 days, been tortured as a PoW for nearly two years in Japanese camps, and battled severe post-traumatic stress disorder to find God.
Not all of this could have happened to one man, you think. And yet it does. Unbroken is a testament to as much the strength of human spirit as the power of the desire to live. There are almost no heroes in this chapter of the war treated mostly as a postscript. But there are all kinds of fighters, and Zamperini (O’Connell) is among the toughest of them all.
In her second directorial venture, Jolie gets it right in most departments. The film is based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand on Zamperini, the Coen brothers are co-scriptwriters, and Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, True Grit) is the director of photography. Her Unbroken is both disturbingly intimate and ambitiously grand, and her own immense belief in Zamperini’s story is quite evident.
And yet Unbroken is also moulded in Jolie’s own zealous mission to better the world. There are few greys in Zamperini’s world, and there are few redemptive features on the other side. While he finished eighth in the Olympics he ran, even that’s left carefully vague in the film. The darkness that finally flooded in when Zamperini was saved and brought home, leaving him full of anger and thoughts of revenge, are mentioned as only an after-thought. And the Japs are effeminate beings with serious issues of self-worth. Unbroken doesn’t just hint at the power of forgiveness, it lays it out thick for you.
Most such war films also rise from being good to great by the bond its men share. Unbroken is surprisingly un-evocative of that. As a result, while you wonder at Zamperini’s story, he remains a character rather than a person of flesh and blood whom you ache for, despite the wonderful effort by O’Connell. Jolie’s awkwardness is most evident in the parts where Zamperini is with his parents and siblings. O’Connell looks uncomfortable and his family are almost cardboard Italians filling up the background — even when brother Pete is turning him into a talented runner.
Jolie begins well, in one of the most detailed scenes of a bomber aircraft, depicting both the claustrophobic space inside and the vast skies around. There are hair-raising scenes of approaching attackers and the vulnerability of the crew inside. Their bombed plane finally has to crashland into sea, and only three of them survive. Besides Zamperini, that includes Phil (Gleeson) and Mac (Wittrock).
Phil draws his strength from religion but Mac holds on to very little hope of making out alive. It’s Zamperini who holds this ship together, literally, through the sheer force of thinking positively. O’Connell channels that instructive leadership nicely even when paying deference to Phil, technically his senior.
They survive by first catching a bird, and then learning to fish. Their lips chap, their skin peels off, they lose weight, they are parched for water, and finally Mac dies. On the 47th day, they are taken prisoner by a Japanese ship.
Here begins the third chapter in Zamperini’s life, one in which he is tormented by the commander of the prison camp, Watanabe, nicknamed ‘The Bird’ (Ishihara). Later listed as one of the most wanted Japanese war criminals, Watanabe is vicious, unrelenting and shares a particular love/hate relationship with Zamperini. Jolie is most surefooted in the bond the two share, though Watanabe comes off worse for it. The scenes between them crackle with tension, animosity and a strange attraction.
As a lesser known chapter of World War II, Unbroken is a welcome addition. However, as a particularly special chapter of it, Unbroken required us to care for Zamperini more than we may end up doing.