The Angelina Jolie tribute to an Olympic WWII POW in her film Unbroken, can either be seen as a patriotic salute to one man’s incredible spirit and refusal to give in under the most extreme of pressures. Or it could be an overlong attempt to ride the long wave of popularity caused by Laura Hillenbrand’s best selling 2010 book of the same name. Not that this latter possibility should be seen in a negative light, what the late Louis Zamperini went through, and survived, is an amazing story of a young man who beats his captors by never giving up.
Hillenbrand wrote the story of Zamperini after learning of his existence doing research for her first bestseller in 2001 Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Zamperini was a lad who was in trouble with law growing up and later, he took all that negative energy and used it to get ahead in sports. The 19 year old competed in the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin, where the young athlete met Adolf Hitler and shook his hand as well as stole a Nazi flag. Neither of these two events are depicted in Jolie’s film, although she does show Louis in Berlin at the event.
Before joining the war effort, something that Louis and his older brother Pete both did, and competing in the Olympics, the young Zamperini was trained for long distance running by Pete who would ride a bicycle behind Louis while he ran, something that is shown in the film. The main portion of the movie Unbroken deals with Louis’ time in Japanese prisoner of war camps and his long battle with “The Bird” the prison camp enlisted commander who was determined to break Zamperini. Angelina Jolie’s tribute to this famous Olympic athlete and POW, is too long at 137 minutes but this Coen Bros script tries to pack a lot of information in. The film drags because of this attempt to include so much, yet it still misses out on the meeting of Hitler and the stealing of the flag, losing a chance to see another side to Louis.
In terms of the cast, English actor Jack O’Connell (his father was Irish) gives a convincing performance as American airman Zamperini, he works hard to make his turn as the Olympic prisoner feel real. While O’Connell stands out as Louis, it is Takamasa Ishihara as “The Bird” or Mutsushiro Watanabe, the bitter enlisted Japanese Imperial soldier who failed to become an officer, that captivates the viewer in Unbroken. His prison commander is a study in sadism and barely controlled jealous rage toward the officers in his camp. When Ishihara, as Watanabe, enters a scene, all eyes immediately look to this actor who shows depths and shadows to his character that engage the viewer and make it impossible to ignore this frightening madman.
Certainly there is relief when “The Bird” leaves the camp because of his promotion. This turns to fear and apprehension when the prisoners are moved to another camp after their previous one is partially destroyed by American bombers and it turns out that Watanabe is the commander at the new one. This true story does, as is the custom of any Hollywood rendering of a non fictional tale, change a few details, but this does not detract from the impact of Unbroken. At least the fate of Francis “Mac” McNamara is not changed, this poor man does not live long enough to be incarcerated by the Japanese and Finn Wittrock (Dandy Mott on American Horror Story), who plays Mac, shows that he can play other roles apart from that of serial killer on television. All the actors do well in their various roles as the real people who lived and died during WWII.
Angelina Jolie could have cut down her tribute to Unbroken hero Louis Zamperini, Olympic athlete and tortured POW, by a good 30 minutes. This extra time detracts from the power of the film and feels a bit self indulgent on Jolie’s part. Despite the fact that the film is overly long, it does not detract too much from the director’s message and her devotion to the story of Unbroken. The film opens on December 25, prepare to be mesmerized by Takamasa Ishihara, aka Miyavi, as “The Bird.”
By Michael Smith
AMC Town Square Theater 18