A Movie Review
of Unbroken (2014)
By Lance Zedric
Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th Century German philosopher famously said, “What does not kill us makes us stronger.” Had he lived to watch Unbroken, the incredible true story of Olympian and soldier Louis “Louie” Zamperini, who survived 47 days lost at sea on a raft and endured three years of hell in Japanese POW camps during World War II, he might have added, “Yeah, but this guy is crazy!”
Directed by gorgeous superfreak, Angelina Jolie, Unbroken (Universal 2014) is a moving—and somewhat Jobian testament (pardon the pun) to the human will and reinforces the idiom that “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” Zamperini’s childhood, as depicted in the film, is a montage of “learning opportunities” that forge the toughness and resiliency that ultimately save his life. In essence, Zamperini is the classic fighter who gets knocked down time and again but always gets up.
Based on the book, Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, the movie opens with bombardier Zamperini (played by newcomer Jack O’Connell) and his B-24 crew making a bombing run somewhere in the Pacific. The plane, piloted by Phil (Domhnal Gleeson), is almost shot down (Knockdown #1). The action then flashes back to Zamperini as a distractible youth getting scolded by this father (Knockdown #2). In another scene, a group of neighborhood boys administer a beating, but the hardnosed Italian won’t stay down and keeps coming back for more (Knockdown #3). The troubled youth then gets in trouble with the law and further embarrasses his family. This time his dad beats his ass (Knockdown #4), adding another layer of toughness. But it’s when a classmate utters, “If you can take it, you can make it,” (Knockdown #5) to the budding high school runner, that we truly understand the depth of Zamperini’s inner strength.
rged on by his loving brother, Pete (John D’Leo), Zamperini turns his life around through running and becomes the fastest high school miler in American history. He earns a spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team in the 5000 meter run at the infamous “Hitler Olympics” in Berlin. Although still a teenager, he comes from last during the race and finishes eighth, besting the top American runner (Knockdown #6).
Switch back to the war. Zamperini and his crew receive a new plane and attempt a rescue mission over the ocean, but enroute they experience engine failure and ditch the plane at sea. Of the eight-man crew, only Zamperini, Phil, and Sgt. Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock) survive and are set adrift on two rubber life rafts with only a few cans of water and a couple chocolate bars (Knockdown #7). Zamperini’s positive mental attitude keeps the men alive in an epic struggle for survival. Despite relentless sunshine, gnawing hunger and thirst, and repeated shark attacks, the men catch and eat raw birds and fish (including a shark) and survive by talking about food (Knockdowns #8 thru I lost count).
Zamperini’s developing relationship with God is a sub-plot in the film. During a violent storm at sea, he prays, “I’ll do whatever you want if you get me through this.” It rains the next day and the men have enough fresh water to survive. On Day 27, an airplane strafes them and destroys one of the rafts and riddles the other with bullet holes. On the second firing run, Zamperini jumps into the water with several sharks rather than be shot, but the sharks avoid him implying divine protection from God (or the notion that he would be too tough too chew). Shortly thereafter, Mac dies, and in the stirring scene, Zamperini and Phil cast his body afloat.
Twenty days later, the Japanese “rescue” Zamperini and Phil and take them to a squalid camp where there are interrogated, beaten, and thrown into solitary confinement. They endure rain, cold, and near madness. On one occasion, they are forced to strip and kneel before their captors to face execution. Zamperini refuses and is beaten until he obeys, but they are spared, only to be taken to Japan, where they are separated. Zamperini is taken to a new camp and introduced to the sadistic Cpl. Masuiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), who singles him out for beatings because he is an Olympian.
As fortune would have it, American newspapers list Zamperini as KIA (killed in action), and the Japanese bring him to Tokyo to do a live radio show for propaganda purposes. But when asked to remain in Tokyo to do additional shows in return for good treatment, Zamperini refuses and is returned to the camp where the Bird orders each prisoner to punch him in the face or to be shot. Initially, the prisoners resist, but Zamperini takes several for the team and urges them to do it.
Eventually, the Bird is promoted and transferred out, but just when things are looking up, Zamperini’s camp is bombed and he and the other POWs are relocated to a new camp commanded by the Bird. Demoralized, but Unbroken, Zamperini loads coal onto barges by hand and endures more brutality. Following the announcement of the death of President Roosevelt in April 1945, the Bird forces Zamperini to hold a railroad tie at shoulder height. If he drops it, he will be shot. But Zamperini pushes the tie above his head and looks the Bird in the eye—an act for which he had many times been beaten. Enraged, the Bird savagely beats him unconscious and leaves him on the ground to die.
Zamperini recovers and the war soon ends. The prisoners wait to be taken home, and in a last act of defiance, Zamperini visits the Bird’s living quarters to either say “hello,” “I beat you,” or to kill him. But the Bird had flown the coop leaving Zamperini’s intention unclear.
In an unforgettable ending featuring actual footage, Zamperini returns to Japan (at age 80) and carries the Olympic torch in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, fulfilling a dream. Ironically, he was training to compete at the Olympic Games in Japan in 1940, but they were abandoned because of World War II. Truth is often stranger—and better—than fiction.
Unbroken is an inspirational and well-intentioned film, and Jolie should be commended on her effort, daring, and perseverance in bringing Zamperini’s incredible story to the big screen. But the film lacked weight. Perhaps the absence of an A-list star or the paucity of kinetic meat contributed to the vegan feel.
The film was a metaphorical 12-round flyweight boxing match instead of a heavyweight slugfest. Granted, it contained some elements of a good fight; several stinging jabs, some wild right hooks, a few thudding body blows, and an occasional heart punch that buckled our emotional knees. But overall, the action was at times plodding and slow and lacked excitement. Regrettably, the much-anticipated knockout punch didn’t come, and in the end, that’s what fans pay for. 7.5 out 10 stars.
Actor Jack O'Connell as Louie Zamperini.
Angelina Jolie directing, Unbroken.