Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars
I first heard the story of Lou Zamperini about 20 years ago while watching one of Tim McCarver’s HBO Sport Specials. I learned that Zamperini had run in the 1936 Olympics (which were held in Berlin) and, even though he didn’t win his event (the 5000 meter race) his time on the final lap so impressed Adolph Hitler that the leader had a personal meeting with him. I also learned that, during World War II, Zamperini’s plane crashed in the Pacific and he became a prisoner of war. The story ended by informing me that, thought dead, a memorial track event was held in California and that Zamperini actually showed up at the second one. An interesting story, to be sure. But the life of Lou Zamperini, how it was lived and how it was molded, took place between races and that is the story of UNBROKEN.
The film opens with Lieutenant Lou Zamperini (O’Connell in a star-making role), a bombardier, and his fellow airmen in a dogfight with Japanese pilots. Making it through, but with the plane badly damaged, the crew is given another assignment and put in a plane that is the talk of the base, mostly because it is in such disrepair. True to its myth, the plane malfunctions and the plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean. Eight of the eleven crewmen are killed but Zamperini and the others spend 47 days on a raft, living off of rainwater and the fish they manage to catch. They are eventually spotted and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Japan. They’re meager dinner is a handful of rice, thrown into their cells. Lou notices the names of nine sailors that had occupied his cell before him. When he inquires as to their whereabouts he is told they were beheaded. Welcome to Japan.
Masterfully directed with a script by a who’s who of Oscar nominated screenwriters, “Unbroken” is easily the most inspirational film of the year as well as one of the year’s best! Jolie proves herself to be a smart director, letting the cast and the script tell the story and capturing the magic on camera. Not to diminish her contributions here. Any time you have a film set during war time it is very easy to go for the heartstrings and gloss over things that would make lesser men cowed by what took place. But here Jolie refuses to hide, or deny, any of the treatment administered by Zamperini’s tormentors. We are introduced to Zamperini’s life via flashbacks and it is these scenes in which we learn why he is so tough. Taunted as a “dago” in school, Zamperini is urged to join the school track team, where his speed and ability to run long distances (helped, no doubt, by his mischievousness as a young hell-raiser) earn him the nickname “The Torrance Tornado.” His brother’s words – “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory” – ring in his ears and inspire him.
In the P.O.W. camp he is singled out by the camp commander (Ishihara – better known as acclaimed guitarist and songwriter Miyavi) who, realizing what it takes to make it to the Olympics, figures if he can break Lou he will be successful in breaking the other prisoners. Known as “the Bird” – we learn that to call him anything else will get you killed – he is both impressed with Lou’s achievements but also disgusted with him, and the others, as enemies of Japan. His performance is frightening. O’Connell not only undergoes mental changes on screen, but physical as well. As his torment begins you can’t help but cringe at his emaciated frame. But it is the strength hidden behind his eyes that makes O’Connell’s performance truly stand out.
The story is straightforward and the script, by Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men”), William Nicholson (“Gladiator”) and Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King”), adapted from the bestselling book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, steadily follows Zamperini throughout his ordeal. The film is beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins, a long-time associate of the Coen brothers and the score, by Alexandre Desplat, sets the tone of the film beautifully.