Unbroken is the movie I was most looking forward to seeing this month. At a glance, it has loads of potential. It has an incredible story to follow, the Coen brothers credited on the screenplay, a lot of remarkable talent, especially Jack O’Connell in the lead role, and although I’m not familiar with Angelina Jolie as a director, I had faith that the woman knew what she was doing and could pull off something worthwhile. So I hate to say that this movie started out strong, only to weaken with brutal repetitiveness in the end. I haven’t read Laura Hillenbrand’s book about the story of Louis Zamperini, but I couldn’t help but think that this movie was probably lacking a lot of crucial pieces from it that could’ve made me feel like I knew Zamperini a bit more, and should’ve strung together the endless, seemingly random moments of abuse and suffering that the audience is repeatedly smacked in the face with in the last half.
Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic track runner who had a reputation as a troublemaker when he was young, and turned it around with the help of his brother Pete (Alex Russell). His success as an Olympian is cut short when World War II begins, and Louis becomes a bombardier in the Air Force. While sent on a rescue mission, his plane crashes and the only three to survive are Louis, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), and Mac (Finn Wittrock). They spend 47 awful days floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean, until they are caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
It’s kind of strange that this movie makes for a better stranded at sea survival story than a war drama. I felt more for Louis then than I did after he was captured. It feels like the actual story just dropped off. It turned into a sequence of events with no emotional connection. Actually, I found the entire first half of the movie to be quite compelling. It starts out with Louis in the middle of the war, and we see flashbacks to when he was a young kid getting in trouble and eventually beginning training as a track runner in order to turn his life around. Once he gets captured, those flashbacks are over. There was hardly even enough of them to truly show what shaped Louis into the person he’s become. By the end, I felt like I hardly knew him at all.
This is no fault of Jack O’Connell, who I was aware had some serious acting chops when I saw him in a British prison drama released earlier this year called Starred Up. He’s really fantastic in Unbroken, and any emotion I did feel wasn’t because of the story itself, but because his tortured performance drew it out of me. The same can be said for Domhnall Gleeson, who I’ve only seen in slightly awkward, comedic roles like those of which he had in Frank and About Time, but he really showed his versatility here as a serious actor. The performances were my favorite thing about this movie, and saved some scenes that could’ve otherwise been horrible.
Like I said, the last half was my least favorite part of the movie. Once Louis reaches the first of two POW camps he’ll have to survive, we are introduced to a long sequence of events in which he will be tortured and beaten nearly to death by the same Japanese officer over and over again. Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) seems hell-bent on singling Louis out from the start. Why? I don’t know. I guess he was just a bastard. I read that he actually got sexual thrill from beating up prisoners, but I couldn’t know that from watching this movie. Because I didn’t know much about this story beforehand, I was actually wondering if maybe this Japanese officer was also an Olympian that Louis had exchanged glances with earlier in the movie, but I quickly threw that theory out. I was desperately trying to make some connection as to why he was so obsessed with Louis and no one else. He had apparently done horrible things to many prisoners he came into contact with, but the movie only showed him abusing Zamperini. I guess people don’t always need a logical reason to be cruel, and the Japanese and Americans were enemies, after all, but it still felt like there was something missing here.
There also wasn’t much connecting Louis with the rest of the prisoners. Fitzgerald (Garrett Hedlund) seems to be some kind of leader there, or maybe I only think that because he’s the only other person in the camp with a prominent role. You’re never told much about him, though, so he ends up just being another character who’s there to take up a little screen time in between Louis’ frequent beatings.
Sure, there’s a lot to admire here as well. The movie captured Louis Zamperini as a man who can overcome anything. He lives up to a very fitting motto he learns early on in the movie, “If I can take it, I can make it.” He takes it, all right. Breaking the record for the most days survived stranded out at sea, making it through not just one, but two POW camps in which he’s singled out and brutally beaten, and then he makes it home only to struggle with a serious post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, while eventually finding God and overcoming it. He also returned to Japan at age 80 and ran the Olympic Torch relay. He was an incredible human being, indeed. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t cover the aftermath of the war or his PTSD, which probably could’ve done his character a lot of justice, but I guess that just wasn’t the chosen focus.
Unbroken had the potential to be a great movie, but it fell short with the script. I’d like to think that Louis Zamperini’s life was much more than just a series of ruthless beatings. Although there were some parts that I found truly interesting, and times when the persistence of the main character amazed me, I feel like the movie overall could’ve been much more emotional and inspiring than it was. Jack O’Connell does an amazing job here, and I wonder what he could’ve done if the script had fleshed the character out just a little bit more. It’s a movie I don’t regret seeing, even if just for the actors alone, but it didn’t live up to all the hype in the end.