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Unbroken film review

In the opening shot of Unbroken, Roger Deakins camera pans across a beautiful open sky, finally landing itself into one of the approaching warplanes.  In the tight space of the plane, where every incoming bullet is a few inches away from every crew member, Louis Zamperini and his crew are carrying out a harrowing mission from the sky.  The scene (as with the other plane scenes) is shot perfectly – it is tense, the sound mix is perfect, and the general sense of dread is enhanced by the claustrophobia.  In this opening sequence, Angelina Jolie’s reverent interpretation of the story of Louis Zamperini’s life begins, taking us into the too wild to believe true story of Louis Zamperini. 

This includes being stranded at sea, POW camps, and Olympic dreams.  Those who read the book know what to expect.  As for the rest of us – it’s best to just sit back and watch as spoiler free as possible.  The film documents Zamperini’s incredible life, ending with an emotional punch that reserves itself from the rest of the film.  Between there and the beginning, Unbroken (which credits Joel and Ethan Coen as 2 of the film’s 4 screenwriters) bounces between multiple parts of Zamperini’s life, as though we are skipping from chapter 2 to chapter 7 to chapter 3 – and it mostly works.  The timeline comes to a halt and the majority of the last half is spent in the Japanese POW Camp where Zamperini faces off against notorious Camp general, The Bird (played with a bratty menace here by Takamasa Ishihara).

Where Unbroken succeeds is in its respect for its central figure.  There are no familiar actors – the most familiar faces are behind the camera (Jolie).  This helps us immerse more into the story (the worst that can be said is that some of the actors are too pretty looking during the Japanese POW camp sequences).  Rather than wondering what is happening to say, Matt Damon, we believe we are watching Zamperini himself (convincingly portrayed by Jack O’Connell).  In addition, although the Coen Bros and their longtime used cinematographer Roger Deakins are part of the film, the dialogue is not what you expect from a Coen Bros film, further removing a possible stylized interpretation of Zamperini’s life story.

The dutiful recounting of Zamperini’s life has its ups and downs.  The negative is that we have in some sense seen much of this before.  It leaves you as an observer of Zamperini’s story, but it leaves something to be desired emotionally (in spite of the ending – which had me tearing up).    However, where this respect had the most positive impact is in the representation of Zamperini’s faith.  As the book details, Zamperini becomes a Christian during a Billy Graham crusade and spent much of his life sharing his faith.  It would be so easy to pander to the faith-based audience, to glorify Zamperini as a saint who stayed cool under pressure or said the right clichés into the face of the camera with a wink and a smile.  Not so – you get the sense that Zamperini’s life was being lived as well as he could live it under the extraordinary circumstances he was presented with.  It makes the account of his faith in the film feel genuine, and for this I was grateful.

I suspect the PG13 rating limits some of the intensity of where the film could have gone.  Though there are still incredible aspects of violence and torture depicted, it stays firmly in this censored territory.  As such, it makes the film a perfect family film for those with middle schoolers.  I remember when I was young and my Dad took me to see Glory – an R rated Civil War movie.  I suspect that Unbroken is in similar territory in terms of audience.

Unbroken is well worth seeing if for nothing else the incredible true story and how Zamperini lived.  Though it is never boring, sometimes I wondered why I wasn’t more moved than I was.  The last several years has been gleefully littered with superhero movies, but in Unbroken we see what can only be described as a true hero.  What Zamperini experienced, how he managed it, and where he ends up is told with care and reverence from a team of gifted filmmakers leading to a well observed recounting of a portion of his life.  While I wouldn’t say it’s the best film of the year, it is certainly good.  Moreover, it is always refreshing to see a movie almost entirely absent of cynicism that uplifts its audience while at times keeping them pinned to their chairs.

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Christopher is a Marriage and Family Therapist completing his license in Southern California.  He loves to write about films, make music, and spend time with his lovely wife.