Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, “Unbroken” follows the story of Louis Zamperini. Predominantly set around his experiences in World War II, most notably his survival for 45 days after crash landing in the Pacific Ocean and his internment in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, the film also shows the defiance of Zamperini from a child causing trouble for the local police through to his eventual rise from local track athlete to a participant in the 1936 Olympics and how that defiance kept him alive until the end of the War.
I found out about this film a few months ago after I was told about it by my brother, who like myself is an athletics fan, and we both decided that we wanted to see it on its release in the UK. What I found was whilst this is a good film, it had the capability to be a great film had it not been for the running time, which despite the film’s 2+ hour running time could have honestly been longer as it barely scratched the surface of Zamperini’s life experiences (and I am not a big fan of long films). Instead, the majority of the film felt similar to “The Railway Man” which was released earlier this year.
The script by the Richard La Gravenese, William Nicholson and the Coen Brothers chooses to focus on Zamperini’s war experiences. Whilst this is both understandable and commendable, given the punishment that was meted out to him by his main tormentor Watanabe, it was a shame that more focus wasn’t devoted to the formative years that made Louis the person who survived the PoW camp and his experiences afterwards where his post traumatic stress led to him making good on a promise that you see him make in the scenes following his crash landing (and which is touched upon in one of the scenes where Louis remembers his childhood going to church).
The direction by Angelina Jolie ensures the film moves along without the audience feeling that they are lingering (especially in the scenes where he along with two other crew members from their downed plane are trying to survive in the Pacific Ocean). As I said above, there could have, and to present a more rounded character for Louis Zamperini should have, been more to this film and I don’t believe that it could be boring. Something that shines throughout is Jolie’s off-screen belief in social and humanitarian justice and this comes well and truly into focus when she shows the tortures and humiliations that Louis had to endure at the hands of Watanabe. The scenes of torture aren’t dwelt upon, but they do command the viewer to watch them for Jack O’Connell’s and Miyavi’s portrayals of Zamperini and Watanabe.
Jack O’Connell delivers a fantastic portrayal of Louis Zamperini that is already seeing him receiving nominations for and achieving awards. His portrayal spans a ten year time period, from high school through to his release from captivity. He manages to convince with believable and emotive effect as a man who suffers incarceration and indignity at the hands of captors, but also gives the role a quiet air of defiance which stretches from the track scenes earlier in the film through to the final scenes.
For the scenes where Zamperini is out on the Pacific Ocean, O’Connell is partnered up with Dromhall Gleeson in the role of Russell “Phil” Phillips and Finn Wittrock as Francis “Mac” McNamara. All three actors give great portrayals of the emotions of three people seeking to find survival and rescue – desperation, hope, selfishness and, from O’Connell’s portrayal, leadership.
Garrett Hedlund gives an understated, yet emotive, performance in the role of John Fitzgerald, the Allied commanding officer in the PoW camp. Not only does he portray the leadership of Fitzgerald, he is, in effect, the on-screen observer for the audience as he shows the emotions of a person who has to witness what is happening to Louis whilst being unable to say anything or intercede.
Alex Russell gives a nice performance as Louis’ elder brother, Pete, who inspired Louis to take up track and field as a way of avoiding being put into prison, whilst C. J. Valleroy manages to match O’Connell in the role of the younger Louis.
But, it’s the performance by Miyavi who is very much the standout of this film as he manages to be an effective and chilling “villain” in the role of Watanabe. There’s a saying that villains aren’t villains in their own eyes and this is certainly true in Watanabe. On the one hand, you see a man who has a form of admiration for who Louis is, but on the other you see a man who is, for want of a better word, a monster incarnate as he seeks to break Louis down and deliver punishment solely upon him for who Louis is. Unlike the portrayal by Tanroh Ishida and Hiroyuki Sanada in “The Railway Man” where you do see some form of sympathy for the character, there is no sympathy engendered for Watanabe even when he breaks down after his failure to break Louis down towards the end of the film. (This is all the more fitting as you find out what happened to Watanabe in the pre-end credits sequence).
Speaking of the pre-end credits sequence, it was nice to see some footage of Louis Zamperini himself, but, as in the rest of the film, I wish there had been more especially as Jolie had managed to meet with him and talk to him on camera.
As I said at the start, “Unbroken” is a good film which could have been a great film had it shown more of the experiences of Louis Zamperini. It is a film that is not just about one person’s bravery, but about faith, not only in the religious sense but in one’s self as well.