Growth, perseverance, and forgiveness; these are all points that Angelina Jolie misses with her film adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's biography of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken. The story of a depression-era Italian American who overcomes his delinquent tendencies to become an Olympic runner straight out of high school should be pure Hollywood gold.
That portion of the Louis Zamperini story alone could be this generations Chariots of Fire. Louis overcomes his troubled youth to run in the 1936 Olympics. He does not medal but puts up such a solid performance that Adolph Hitler seeks him out to congratulate him on such an amazing performance. To quote one those late night infomercials “but wait there's more..." Straight out of college Louis enlists in the Army Air Force and becomes a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator bomber.
Angelina Jolie opens the movie with Louis Zamperini, played by Jack O'Connell, scampering around the interior of a B24 like a track star. Jack O'Connell does an excellent job portraying Louis Zamperini, despite Angelina Jolie’s best efforts. The first flashback scene to Louis as a troubled youth running from the police does little to tie the ensuing scenes together.
The flashback scenes come off as an overly artistic representation of "life passing before my eyes." Though the scenes do serve to provide a glimpse into Louis' back story, there is little to no correlation between the flashback scenes and their jump off points in the film. The first flashback scene occurs while Louis and his crewmates are under heavy anti-aircraft fire and cuts back to Louis as a child in church and subsequently running from the police. Though it was a nice artistic touch to cut from Louis entering the cockpit of the B24 as the sunbeams are slicing through the clouds to a Catholic priest sermonizing about the salvation and light and a young Louis fidgets in a pew.
The flashback scenes should provide a strong tie between the development of the current scene and the backbone of the movie. This screenplay, as written by the Coen brothers (Ethan and Richard) along with Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, serves more like a rambling highlight reel of Louis Zamperini's life.
Having read Laura Hillenbrand's book, before seeing the movie, I feel that there were so many missed opportunities in this film. The cinematography is inconsistent; there are great detailed action sequences that followed by overused high crane shots. The scenes of the prisoners in the POW camps standing in block formations is almost cliché. These high crane shots fail to help the viewer connect with the characters anguish and the daily ordeals they face in a prison camp.
The movie spends roughly 1/4 of its time focused on the 47 days Zamperini and his two fellow crew mates, played remarkably well by Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock, spend lost at sea. There is a sense of desperation and loneliness that permeates these section of the movie. Though, as with much of the movie, the focus seems to be on artistic touch instead of connecting with the viewer. The capture of Louis and Phil shows them being picked up while adrift at sea, and the scene depicts them overshadowed by a Japanese warship. The huge shadow of a Japanese ship superimposed on top of the image of the two of them floating in a raft setups the doom and gloom that is to follow.
The most powerful and moving scenes in the movie occur in the POW camps. The interactions between Watanabe, played by the Japanese musician Miyavi, and Zamperini convincingly convey the resilience and determination Zamperini displayed during this very dark chapter of his life. Miyavi's portrayal of Watanabe is captivating and almost outshines O’Connell’s performance as Zamperini. Miyavi delivers each scene with a believable presence that helps draw the viewer back in. The intensity and passion that Miyavi display throughout the movie makes him the perfect antagonist.
The viewer is drawn in by the performance of Miyavi as Watanabe. I was left wondering why Watanabe would single out Zamperini and treat him abusively. The energy and believability of Miyavi's performance save the film from drowning in artistic cliché. Despite his treatment at the hands of the Japanese during World War II, Zamperini returns to Japan later in life and seeks out those who imprisoned him with the purpose of forgiving his previous captors. The only captor that refused to meet with him was Watanabe.
The movie ends with Zamperini returning to the Olympics as a torch bearer. Instead of building on the performances by Miyavi and O'Connell, the movie concludes with a series of text blocks to help round out the story. Unlike Zamperini's performance in the 1936 Olympics, this screenplay does not finish fast and strong.
Director Angelina Jolie
Writers Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, Laura Hillenbrand (Book)
Starring Jack O'Connell, Miyavi, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock