Directed By: Angelina Jolie
Written By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Time: 137 min
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson, Jai Courtney
Plot: After a near-fatal plane crash during WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
Comments: My dad likes war movies. In fact when it comes to our movie nights he more often picks war movies more than any other film we go see. Which sometimes can be pretty hard with a vet. But I indulge him as much as I can. In fact some of them are pretty good. Unbroken is okay. Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand (who also did Seabiscuit) it tells of one man’s refusal to be broken.
Louis Zamperini was a troublemaker as a child. He broke into houses, got into way too many fights and was making his parents grey far too early. But then he started running, channeling all of that defiance into a running career that led him to the Berlin Olympics and nearly a four minute mile. The war came soon after and the athlete became a lieutenant and a bombardier. In May of 1943 his bomber crashed into the ocean and disappeared with only Louis and two of his crewman to survive in the middle of the ocean. What came after that is amazing that anyone survived.
I dig biopics, really I do, but this one didn’t have the intensity and the heart that I wanted from it. After the film was done, I read up on Zamperini because I felt like the little glimpses of this man’s life were mostly focused on enduring horrible things. There was so much more. So much more that could have given the film more heart. At age 17, in 1934, he clocked in at 4:21.2 for the mile which is crazy because the 4 minute mile barrier did not get broken until 1954. Even better when he made it to the Olympics at the age of 19 and had his race, Adolph Hitler shook his hand afterward. 5 years later he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. These things are amazing feats and I felt like all of it was glossed over.
I felt the same about the Bird. Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishimara) aka “The Bird” was an educated young man who was born into wealth. When he enlisted into the army he expected to become an officer like his older brothers, but his failure to achieve this goal is reported to be one of the reasons General McArthur named him to be one of Japan’s worst war criminals. He abused POWs every day fracturing tracheas, practicing judo on an appendectomy patient, and more. Even worse the psychological torture on those prisoners was renowned as one day he would cruelly beat them and the next he would be offering them candy and cigarettes. None of this is really shown in the film. Sure he is a bastard and takes great pleasure in torturing Zamperini, but his character ends up being so clichéd and one dimensional.
The same goes for the prison camp. I learned after the film that over a third of Allied POWs died while in Japanese detention camps. This is compared to only one percent dying in German camps. German camps. We never see what other prisoners in Zamperini’s camp really endured because instead they sneak messages and play cards. We don’t see everyone who died while in that camp, that the harsh reality of we are all going to die here was real every damn day. Now I will say that Jack O’Connell does a decent job with the material and direction he received. Louis is likable, but I felt like O’Connell is capable of doing much more. Oddly I felt like there wasn’t enough for him to play off of. Sure there are some great scenes, but I wanted more. I wanted there to be a breaking point. I wanted to hear him say I can do this or I will never give up. I wanted there to be…something.
My dad enjoyed the air combat and the airplane sequences and the cinematography was decent enough though nothing spectacular in the way things were shot. I guess my biggest grip is that biopics should have character development and emotional punch you in the gut moments. Zamperini’s life has it all there. And yet both the screenplay and directing seem to focus on the suffering, in fact that is how the story progresses…one horrid thing to the next. This results in showing me a story instead of telling it. It slows down the pacing and makes the film feel a hell of a lot longer than it should. It also robs the lead character, a man who sadly passed away last year before the film was released, of any real depth. He should have depth. This film should have been an Oscar contender. The life is there. My expectations are there. Instead it lacked any real heart. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t extraordinary and it should have been. I wanted Seabiscuit level amazing. Instead I felt like I got a tv movie version with a bigger budget.
Rent/Cinema? Rent. The book is better which is painfully obvious only a few chapters into the book. It is worth renting so that you can learn about Zamperini’s life, but the film takes an amazing life and manages to suck out all of the amazing bits. It gets 2 and three quarter stars because without this film I wouldn’t have picked up the book nor would I have learned about this man’s story.