By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Unbroken is a sweeping World War II epic that chronicles the inspirational, credulity-defying ordeal of Louie Zamperini, an Olympian champion turned war hero whose circumstances remain dire, to say the least, for an unfathomably long time.
Rowdy youth Zamperini, played by British newcomer Jack O’Connell, is an athlete who races in the 1936 Olympics, then becomes a US Air Force bombardier whose B-24 is shot down over the Pacific during a search-and-rescue mission.
He drifts on a life raft along with two other surviving members (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) of the eleven-man crew for 47 days when he is rescued by the enemy and sent to several Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, where he encounters a sadistic officer -– Matsuhiro Watanabe (played by pop star Miyavi), nicknamed “The Bird” — and then must endure suffering and survive torture and near-starvation that continues for two years and eventuates into post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Angelina Jolie takes to the director’s chair for a second time (2011’s impressive In the Land of Blood and Honey was the first) and delivers what is unmistakably a labor-of-love tribute to a deserving recipient.
But we exit wishing the film had worked us up to a higher emotional plane.
The flashback-punctuated screenplay by Joel and Ethan Cohen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, based on Unbroken: A World War II Story of Revival, Resilience and Redemption, the 2010 best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand, explores well-intentioned themes of courage and resolve with a Job-like protagonist who doesn’t give up no matter what’s thrown at him, but is perhaps portrayed as a mite too superheroic for full credibility.
That is, we wish we got into his skin a bit more insightfully.
But the script is too often platitudinous, as in the advice of Louie’s older brother. “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory” is one of his repeated pronouncements, as is “If you can take it, you can make it.” A bit too on-the-nose for comfort, no?
Still, the triumph-of-the-human-spirit element of the screenplay certainly registers, if somewhat repetitively and so relentlessly that it gives the film a one-dimensional quality that robs Zamperini of his three-dimensional humanity and undercuts the emotional climax.
However, Jolie’s treatment of the violence and graphic brutality is well-judged for its PG-13 rating, and her handling of the large-scale set pieces is so adept that we tend to shelve our objections –- at least until the full narrative plays out.
So we’ll survive 2½ stars out of 4. Unbroken is unvarying but, like its protagonist, undeniably unconquerable.