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Entries in Unbroken [2014] (1)

Thursday
Dec252014

Unbroken (2014)

It's Okay to Be Inspired

Today is Christmas, and it's fitting that there's a lot to unwrap with Unbroken. Some have called Angelina Jolie's biopic of World War II veteran Louis Zamperini a cheesy, unabashedly religious bit of hagiography, and I'm hard-pressed to disagree. It is also an exciting and deeply personal war movie that isn't afraid to place a higher value on inspiration than the graphic glorification of human misery.

Jack O'Connell stars as Zamperini, the poor son of Italian immigrants. His older brother, Pete (Alex Russell), turns him on to high school track as a means of channeling the rage and low self-esteem that get him into constant trouble with the law. Turns out Louis' a natural who zooms his way to a spot at the 1936 Olympics. A few years later, while serving in the US Army Air Forces, his rickety bomber gets shot down over the Pacific Ocean. Unbroken centers on Zamperini's six weeks at sea with two fellow crew members, and his subsequent capture and years-long internment by the Japanese military.

The film opens with Zamperini narrowly surviving an air raid, and cuts frequently to childhood flashbacks. It's an uneven start, to be sure; the immersive, high-stakes bomber battle stands in high contrast to young Zamperini's (C.J. Valleroy) unexplained behavioral problems, and the Hallmark Channel earnestness of big brother (John D'Leo) telling him, "If you can take it, you can make it". We get the requisite Catholic mass scene with attendant close-up of the little kid's face wondering what the whole Jesus thing is all about. We muscle through the truant-officer-talking-to-the-concerned-mother scene. And on and on. Were it not for the strength of the "modern day" material, the film would have been in big trouble.

Fortunately, Jolie and her cadre of screenwriters (which includes none other than Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson) abandon the Slumdog Millionaire structure early on, allowing us to face Zamperini's struggles the same way he did--with an unflinching focus on the now. From starvation, shark attacks, and violent storms to the horrors of interrogation and internment, Zamperini's life becomes a drawn-out Passion Play re-enactment--a stomach-sinking string of dashed-hope disasters that would read as hokum had they not been based on a real man's two years in hell.

Those looking for an in-depth exploration of Zamperini's inner workings miss the point of the film. Unbroken provides the impetus for this remarkable young man's perseverance (a wavering faith in God that leads to an unwavering belief in himself). We're not subjected to extended monologues about heroism or armchair psychology because it's unlikely any of that came into play on the raft or in the prison camps. Just as the Greatest Generation is famous for letting others boast about its accomplishments, Jolie simply presents Zamperini's story and leaves us to determine its greater implications--as a mirror to our own notions of resilience.

Indeed, the film's greatest commentary is a deftly posed and sadly relevant question regarding America's attitudes towards its treatment of wartime prisoners. Recently, new CIA reports have resurrected the "Is Waterboarding Torture?" debate. Among the horrors faced by Zamperini and his hundreds of fellow service members were repeated dousings with buckets of cold water while kneeling in the nude, with rifles trained on them; standing outside for days on end; and daily beatings with bamboo staffs. In the most sinister display, Zamperini is ordered to take a punch in the face by each prisoner in the camp. One cannot walk away from this film without considering where such acts fall on one's personal "torture" spectrum.

These are heavy issues at the heart of what is ostensibly a Triumph of the Human Spirit movie, and for good reason. After all, the human spirit requires tremendous adversity in order to triumph, and Zamperini's story certainly qualifies. It helps that O'Connell turns in the second of two outstanding 2014 performances. Earlier this year, he played a degenerate killer in Starred Up, and he brings an equally powerful but differently manifested intensity to bear here. Despite what some of the talk surrounding the film would have you believe, his character is not an indomitable Superman.* He embodies intelligence, honesty, and hope, but only to the degree to which such characteristics naturally give way to fear and uncertainty in the face of the dreaded Darkest Hour.

O'Connell's performance is the film's strongest, but he is in fine company with the likes of Domhnall Gleeson,** Garrett Hedlund, and Takamasa Ishihara (his role as the head of Zamperini's prison camp strains credulity, but the actor hits some surprisingly subtle notes with what could have been--and occasionally is--a cartoonish part). Unbroken's other unsung hero is legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who works with Jolie to broaden the wartime scale when necessary and, in a heartbeat, seamlessly close ranks on intimacy (be it the claustrophobia of impending madness or a few fleeting, quiet minutes between tired, tortured men).

Like Jolie's previous film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Unbroken examine the extraordinary challenges of war through the eyes of ordinary people. Yes, Louis Zamperini was just a guy--a guy who became greater than anything he'd ever expected of himself. Unbroken reassures us that, whether or not our own trials involve mortars or just mortgages, the simple act of striving to do better--to be better--can lead to amazing things. It's a simple message that cynics may argue is too simple, but it's delivered in a rousing, beautiful, and unapologetically upbeat entertainment.

*Though there are times when I wondered where O'Connell was during Man of Steel's casting.

**Both he and O'Connell undergo unsettling physical transformations, withering from buff, all-American kids to practically skeletal ghouls by the end of their time at sea.