Dave White
Unbroken Review

Dave's Rating:

3.0

Greatest Generation gap

Unbroken, the true story of Olympic athlete and World War II veteran Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling biography, is a harrowing story of survival in the face of catastrophic events, imprisonment and torture. It's a solid block of admirable, inspirational entertainment. And like all moral tales, it will have the pleasing movie-magic effect of convincing audiences -- who would give up under the weight of a fraction of the story's horrifying circumstances -- that they could also endure, triumph, and ultimately forgive their enemies in a similar fashion.

Zamperini's plane was shot down in the Pacific, where he survived in a life raft for 47 days, at which point he was captured by the Japanese Navy and sent to a prison camp where he suffered constant abuse, much of it at the hands of a man named Mutsuhiro Watanabe (also known as "The Bird," played here by Japanese musician Miyavi). As other men broke and died around him, Zamperini made it through by sheer force of will and a determination not to let the enemy win.

Director Angelina Jolie has, it seems, learned a lot from her experience working with Clint Eastwood. Her interest in idiosyncratic characters like Zamperini guides her, but on this, her second feature, she approaches the task as though building a somber, handsome monument to stoicism. Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins insures every frame is an act of beauty, even when the subject is agonized suffering. And the result is a movie that, as it moves through what resemble stations of the cross, acts as a distancing device, separating Zamperini from his own humanity.

In early sequences we're promised an exciting historical figure, a teenage juvenile delinquent who slyly paints bottles of stolen booze white to make it look like he's slugging down wholesome milk. He steals and smokes and fights. This is a boy who will grow into a man who outsmarts his captors, not just carry their pain. And according to the details of Hillenbrand's book, he did just that.

Movie Zamperini, however, is more heroic leader than wiley prisoner. The potential for satisfyingly clever revenge -- the backbone of films like The Great Escape -- is set aside for stately highlights, behind-the-camera craftsmanship, and dignity at the expense of propulsion.

Jolie paints a picture of an iron giant, one who promises God a life of service if only he can make it through the war. After that declaration, there's no more talk about faith until the closing credit title cards, only feats of Herculean strength and will, as the movie ditches nuance for a slow march to greatness. Finely crafted, safely directed, simple and true to a spirit of reconciliation though it might be, it risks very little to tell the story of a man who risked everything. Funny, sometimes, how history works out like that.

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