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War And Determination Made Louis Zamperini Unbroken

Updated on November 26, 2015

Louis Zamperini survived his younger years, often in spite of himself. As a boy, he smoked, drank, and stole, and became the target of bullying because of his Italian heritage. However, with encouragement from his brother, Louie changed his bad habits. He became a distance runner who set records at the high school level. After graduation, he made the Olympics team in Berlin. Though he failed to medal, he vowed to get better for an Olympics that would be canceled due to World War II. When America entered the war, he became a bombadier, and eventually served on a crew who vanished during a rescue mission. He and the pilot, though, were eventually discovered and captured by the Japanese and interned in cruel POW camps. The movie Unbroken tells the tale of Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), who endured many hardships at the hands of his captors. His POW ordeal was preceded by a 47-day fight to survive in shark-infested waters after his plane was shot down and crashed in the Pacific. Initially, Louie and crew mates Russell "Phil" Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis "Mac" McNamara (Finn Wittrock) found their way to the plane's life rafts. However, several days after taking fire from an enemy plane, Mac, though not hit, dies. A Japanese ship captures them nearly two weeks later and separate them following interrogation.

The Japanese soon learn that Louie was an Olympian who'd been presumed dead, and they use that to single out Louie for harsh treatment. Leading the mistreatment is Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi), a disgruntled non-commissioned officer repeatley denied promotion. When he arrives at his camp, the corporal hits Zamperini with his rifle several times and tells the prisoner not to look at him. Louie also gets advice on how to survive in the camp and get news about the Allies, including a fellow American named Fitzgerald (Garrett Hedlund). He gets a chance to avoid hard labor by participating in broadcasts on a Tokyo radio station. After confirming he's still alive, he refuses to read anti-American propaganda, and is returned to the camp, where Watanabe punishes him for his actions. When Watanabe finally becomes a sergeant and goes to another camp, Louie and the others get a reprieve from his treatment. That is short-lived as forces bomb the camp, and are sent to the more secure facility where Watanabe continues to treat his prisoners excessively badly. Louie and the others now serve on coal barges, wondering if the Japanese will make good on the notion of killing them should the war seem lost.

Unbroken, based on the Zamperini bigraphy by Laura Hillenbrand, should have been a rousing tribute to one of the many Americans who served with distinction in World War II. Instead, director Angelina Jolie turns Unbroken into a typical story of valor that focuses more on the war than the attributes that made him and his service distinctive. Further, I find it curious that the last ones involved in the screenplay adaptation were Joel and Ethan Coen, accomplished scenarists and directors in their own right (Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson had worked on the screenplay before Jolie became attached to the movie). Usually, the Coens succeed in creating work rich in characterization, but here, they don't do much of that beyond the main character and his antagonist. Jolie isn't bad as a director, but her movie doesn't measure up to another fact-based 2014 movie about an Allied POW and his Japanese captor, The Railway Man. That film shows more of the arc of captivity, torture, and healing process than Unbroken, that only rushes to touch on the healing in the final moments. Unbroken still has enough good moments to make it a passable biopic.

O'Connell rises above the material to show Louie man who shed bad habits and embraced family, faith, and country. On the life rafts, he became the de facto leader, making sure that the fish and the rainwater kept all three sustained. Even when he came up short of a medal in the Olympics, he maintained a positive attitude about making another run that never happened. Even as Watanabe and others tried to rob him of his dignity, he refused to sacrifice his ideals or let the Japanese put him in a position of total weakness. The film marks the screen debut of the Japanese pop singer Miyavi (Takamasa Ishihara is his given name), who effectively shows unrelenting cruelty as Watanabe, willing to punish Louie any time the mood strikes. Gleeson and Hedlund also have good moments in support. Zamperini appears in some post-war footage and photos just before the end credits roll.

Unbroken is a film that doesn't exactly live up to its title. A quick read about Louis Zamperini himself indicates he had a great life and a great change from budding juvenile delinquent to elite athlete to a man who endured more hardships than many in war. The movie has moments that show these facets of the man, but doesn't give a complete and compelling portrait of his accomplishments. The war becomes too much of the focus, and doesn't show the ways Zamperini managed to get himself from a prison camp to his final finish line.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Unbroken three stars. A decent story of a man who knew what mattered most.


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