Saturday, December 20, 2014

Unbroken



Believe me, I'm as surprised as anybody about this star rating. I came into this film with a ton of good will. First, my family has been singing the praises of the source material for months on end. Then, the initial trailer for this movie was released, which was possibly my favorite trailer of the year (scroll down to see what I'm talking about). With all of the talent that was involved in the production of this film and the rich story potential of adapting such an extraordinary life story, I expected this to be one of if not my favorite film of the year. Unfortunately, despite all the promise this film showed initially, a lot of that potential goes unrealized.

Louis "Louie" Zamperini was once a rebellious youth, stealing cigarettes and liquor when he wasn't getting in fights with the neighborhood bullies. However, thanks to some words of encouragement and training assistance from his brother, Louie begins to realize his potential as an athlete. His track and field prowess leads to an appearance in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he breaks the record for the final lap of the 5,000 meter race. Later we see him as a second lieutenant, deployed to the Pacific island of Funafuti as a bombardier on the B-24 Liberator bomber. While on a rescue mission after crashing their original plane, the crew are given a notoriously defective craft that crashes to the ocean and kills 8 of the 11 passengers on board. After 47 days adrift on a life raft, Louie and his crew mate Phil are rescued/captured by the Japanese Navy and held in a prisoner of war camp with no hope of escape. 

I'll cut myself off there so that there's still some suspense for those who don't know about Zamperini's story. Right off the bat I noticed what was probably the biggest strength of this film - the cinematography. Roger Deakins is an incredible cinematographer (see my review of Skyfall for more on that), and he does a great job of capturing the beauty of the locations as well as the internal struggle of each character. If you're a relatively new director doing a massive film like Unbroken, you can't choose a better camera man than Deakins to capture it.

The next best thing about this film is the performances, particularly by lead actor Jack O'Connell playing Zamperini. He does a great job personifying the struggles that Louie had to endure, particularly as the film progresses and his physical strength begins to deteriorate. Everyone else in this film is a bit-player, but most of them come to play as well. Domhnall Gleeson was particularly memorable as Russell "Phil" Phillips, who survived the ocean with Zamperini and must have endured his own fair share of punishment in the POW camps. Unfortunately, he wasn't in the film for very long, and besides a passing mention at the film's "where are they now" conclusion (a staple of any Hollywood biopic), we never got to see his character make it home.

This leads into some of my other complaints about the movie, which I wouldn't have imagined going into the screening on Wednesday night. There is so much fertile ground in this story for an emotional and spiritual experience, particularly since these are the areas where Zampirini seemed to struggle the most later in life. I went in with some knowledge of the book, but had few expectations as far as the content we would see, but even I could tell that something wasn't really jelling the way it should. The tagline of this movie (and the subtitle of the book) says "Survival. Resilience. Redemption." It's a great three-word summation of Louie Zamperini's life as I understand it, but the problem with this movie is that its focus was entirely on the first two points. Director Angelina Jolie really wanted to do this film when the rights became available, but it seems like she misplaced her attention on the physical endurance Zamperini displayed rather than the spiritual journey his trials took him through. According to family members who have read the book, she seemed to have missed the point by excising all of the real struggles he had to overcome throughout his life, instead of spending the entire film on World War II.

Even disregarding this complaint, I wasn't particularly moved by anything we were shown on screen. I am a big softy when it comes to films (see my review of Return of the King for more on that), and fully expected to be shedding tears at multiple parts of the movie. Seriously, I even teared up every time I watched the trailer for this film. But no matter how many lashes Zamperini takes, or how many close encounters with a shark he survives, there's nothing that really made me care all that much. Obviously no one wants to see someone stricken with so many tribulations, but in a movie it's imperative to make the audience care about the character in order for us to really feel the magnitude of what they overcome. Unfortunately, Jolie expects her audience to come into the film already caring about Zamperini and does hardly anything to make us connect with him. Even a subplot involving the love of his life (who also gets a brief mention at the end credits) was cut from the film to make room for more prison beatings. There's a moment of it in the trailer, but even bringing a fraction of that relationship into the film would have made a world of difference.

Ultimately, this was a pretty major disappointment, and it continues to irk me the more I think about it. Technically it's a very well-made film with brilliant images and solid performances, and the story itself is incredibly inspirational as a pinnacle of human perseverance, but the movie short-changes the real heart and soul of his story by limiting it to such a narrow scope. It's astounding to me that I walked away feeling like the trailer was a better tribute to the miraculous life of Louie Zamperini than the two hour film. I'd still probably recommend it to people who just want to know what he went through, but there's no real redemption shown here. I debated giving this a higher rating, but my sinking opinion of how this material was handled brought me down to a (maybe a little harsh) two and a half stars for Unbroken.

UNBROKEN is rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language


** What did you think of Unbroken? Was it a worthy adaptation of the acclaimed biography, or do you think it missed the point? Let me know in the comments and don't forget to like my page on Facebook! **