Sunday, December 28, 2014


by Melissa Scott

The true story and message behind Unbroken is undeniably inspiring. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, the movie ultimately retells the heroic and physically agonizing ordeal of Louie Zamperini. Directed by Angelina Jolie, the movie loyally depicts the pain and suffering administered almost continually to one WWII veteran during his service in the Army Air Corps. But while ensuring that Zamperini’s total hardships are conveyed, Jolie almost exceeds the necessary show of brutality, and expends the feeling of human resolve and strength that the movie intends to stir.

Unbroken throws the viewer into action from the start with a riveting aerial action sequence. Louie Zamperini--played by Jack O’Connell--accompanied by fellow bombardiers, darts around the B24 battalion dropping bombs over Japan and fending off cascading attack. The scene is alluring and gripping. The plane rocks and dips while buffeted by explosions and shots. The camera view follows Zamperini as he edges around the plane’s unprotected side doors, and the viewer has a heightened sense of danger. If Zamperini falls, so does the viewer.

During the air combat scene, flashbacks of Zamperini’s boyhood flit back and forth. After some delinquency problems involving drinking, stealing, and fighting, young Italian immigrant Zamperini discovers an exceptional talent for running. He begins training for his local southern California high school track team, and quickly excels as the fastest high school distance runner in U.S. history. Zamperini competes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He places eighth, and is excited to make a name for himself at the next Games. 

Alternating present-to-flashback scenes reveal Zamperini’s choice to enlist after the cancellation of the 1940 Olympics Games.

As the flashbacks end, Zamperini’s fighter plane crashes into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He and two other men, Russell “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock), are the only survivors, barely able to escape from the plummeting depths of the plane’s force. Struggling to survive, the three manage to board a safety raft, and float adrift on open sea for forty-seven days.

The scenes on the raft are some of the most powerful of the film, as O’Connell quickly establishes himself as a captivating actor. Zamperini demonstrates awing leadership. He encourages Phil and Mac to keep fighting despite battling conditions of heat exhaustion, dehydration, hunger, and even shark attacks. However, Mac eventually loses hope, and dies a heart-wrenching death.

Eventually, Zamperini and Phil are rescued-captured by a Japanese fighter ship. The two are separated, and forced into brutal treatment and severe labor in Japanese prisoner of war camps.

Zamperini instantly becomes the scapegoat of camp guard Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). Jealous of Zamperini’s fame as a U.S. Olympic athlete, and angered by his strength and defiance, The Bird seeks to cause Zamperini suffering at every possible moment. Zamperini is horrifically beaten for looking The Bird in the eye, a transgression he continues throughout the movie, yielding constant beatings and torture. Remaining in the prisoner of war camps for over two years, Zamperini and the other U.S. prisoners endure endless abuse from their Japanese captors, until the war finally ends.

The torture scenes of the camps are harrowing, and necessarily so. Jolie clearly meant to portray Zamperini’s true ordeal as faithfully as possible. But the torture scenes were excessive and took away from empathy on a personal level. The beatings successfully portray the unbearable hardships Zamperini faced, but the sheer amount made them seem more punishing than moving.

While the atrocities on the raft were distressing, they had a certain focus and vulnerability that the abuse of the camps lacked. Zamperini’s eye-meeting fight with The Bird spun throughout the movie nearly three times, each time resulting in beatings that were excruciating to watch. Four other bloody and strident whippings ensue for almost no reason at all. I understand the importance of honoring the real Zamperini’s remarkable service and suffering. But the same (and maybe even more) respect could be rendered with a little less of the insufferable torture. The emotional resonance decreases as each torture scene rotates the same way again and again. Zamperini teeters on the edge of soulful defeat before finding a determined second wind of resilience.

The acting in Unbroken is superb. O’Connell demonstrates a quiet and unassuming valor, drawing utter admiration with a mere facial expression. Pleasurably attractive, yet not the typical movie-star gorgeous, he draws sympathy instantly. Ishihara plays his character with chilling malevolence, and he strikes fear whenever his silhouette crosses the screen. Gleeson also merits commendation, making his smaller role remarkably memorable.

Unbroken does an excellent and realistic job of portraying Zamperini’s tale of resistance and strength of character. It is well-cast, and conveys a true story worth telling. But it loses the inspirational quality for the audience, due in part to the gruesome and never-ending scenes of abuse. Even when Zamperini finally returns to America and reunites with his family, the film ends in a quick freeze-frame. The viewer never gets to see Zamperini’s truly inspirational act—the rebuilding of his life after the trauma. The end credits inform that Zamperini does in fact forgive all his captors, including The Bird, and manages to marry and start a family. But without a visual representation of this extraordinary triumph, and a little too much of the agony, Unbroken falls short of providing the experience of appreciating its hero’s astounding liberation. 


  1. Good review and it was difficult to watch but Samporini remains an inspiration


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