Friday, December 26

REVIEW: Unbroken

Directed by Angelina Jolie
2014 War Drama
2 hours 17 minutes
From Universal Pictures
and Legendary Pictures

Jack O'Connell
Domhnall Gleeson
Garrett Hedlund
Takamasa Ishihara
Finn Wittrock
Alex Russell

Walking out of an incredibly packed Christmas afternoon showing, I heard a man ask his wife what she thought of the film.  She responded with I think she tried too hard.  I didn't hear any mention of who she was, but since there were no significant female roles in the film, she could only have meant director Jolie.  I have read some things in the past week that would echo these sentiments but I do not share them.  I say move over Kathryn (The Hurt Locker) Bigelow.  There's another woman who can turn out a good testosterone-laden war film.

The film is based on a 2010 book by Laura Hillibrand titled Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.  As the picture opens we are told not based on a true story but rather a true story.  It is the harrowing tale of Louis Zamperini whose life is examined since he was 11 or 12 years old until just after the war ends. 

The film opens with war sequences... Zamperini in a plane that is dropping bombs.  There are flashbacks to his childhood, where he gets into kid trouble and is roughed up by some local toughs while living with non-English-speaking Italian parents, two sisters and a brother who champions Louie's self-worth.  We are treated to his discovery of and growth as a runner which lands him in the Olympics.  I was quite into these sections of the screenplay because of a fascination with early beginnings and those things that shape us as adults.  I always get pumped up at events outlined in sports stories as if I were there and rooting for my favorite.

Somehow I thought by the countless previews I had seen that this might have been a bit more about those early times but they are   brief.  This is a war film with a focus on survival.  Sometime after those aforementioned bombs are dropped, the plane must ditch into the sea and we deal with the hardships Louie and two companions must endure in life rafts.  These scenes are done very well.

But the Japanese capture the men and the remainder of the film is about what Zamperini endured in over two years in a prisoner of war camp.  He suffers cruelly, particularly at the hands of a sadistic commandant.  Fair warning that these scenes are not easy to watch and the faint-of-heart may have an occasional closing of the eyes.  Additionally stressful are how bad the prisoners look and the tasks, mainly serving to punish and humiliate.  I felt as claustrophobic as I can recall at the solitary confinement scenes.  Congratulations everyone for giving me some labored breathing and just generally creeping me out.

I have no idea who Jack O'Connell is but I am glad that has all changed now.  I don't know if the real Zamperini was as mellow through all his horrific happenings as he's played here but I admit I wanted to see the character go a little crazy in his behavior.  His circumstances were quite worthy of letting off some steam and yet the actor showed little of that.  Maybe it was how the real Zamperini was (he saw the film shortly before he died earlier this year and professed to like it and see its truth) or maybe it was the writing.  Nonetheless, I saw a damned good actor in O'Connell.  I'd like to see him nab an Oscar nomination but it's a tough category this year.

Equally impressive was Takamasa Ishihara as the man who inflicts all the torture.  He is also known by the name of Miyavi in his native Japan where he is a composer in addition to being an actor.  He perfected a facial look that was chilling to the bone and it was difficult to not think of the harm you'd like to bring to him.  I love a performance that stirs me like that.  His role may even exceed in sheer force similar ones played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List and Kristof Waltz in Inglorious Basterds.

One of the things that is riveting about this type of film and this one specifically is answering the question how would I do under those same circumstances.  I won't share my answer with you and you won't have to write and share yours with me.  My hat is off to Mr. Zamperini.

Now back to Kathryn Bigelow.  She really doesn't have to worry quite yet.  It might have been a treat to see what she would have done with this work.  I suspect it would have a bit of a different feel in the hands of a male director, and also a more seasoned director of either gender, as well.  But I applaud Jolie.  I think she did a good job considering she's new at this directing gig.

They came to genuinely care about one another

The film may suffer some from an over-zealous pre-release chatter.  I personally liked the various things I've seen on the tube on Jolie or Zamperini or both... always hypes me to see the film.  I suspect it will only do so-so business because I don't envision young moviegoers-- who buy most of the tickets and popcorn-- as being taken with this kind of film.  How much does one care about survival at 17... or history for that matter.

I am drawn to films about folks being heroes, for being tough and resilient, for being bigger than their circumstances.  Survival tales inspire me.  And so does good acting.  Likewise fleshing out a character so, as an audience member, I have something to grab on to.
It's not a perfect film but it's a good one.

Still another review

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