REVIEW: “Unbroken”

Unbroken poster

The true story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini is a remarkable one. Zamperini was an Italian immigrant who navigated a troubled childhood to become a record-breaking Olympic track star. Later he fought in World War II where he ended up captured by the Japanese and placed in prisoner of war camps. In “Unbroken” director Angelina Jolie seeks to bring this unbelievable story of life, strength, and perseverance to the big screen.

Tackling movies like this always comes with risks. Many big emotionally-fueled biopics put too much emphasis on melodrama and sentimentality. Some are so systematically polished that they feel like productions instead of intimate stories. “Unbroken” struggles in both regards. Jolie heightens the melodrama through a number of common conventions. We see this mostly in the first half of the film. She also doesn’t shy away from giving us one emotional cue after another whether it be through music or her camera. Also there is no denying that this is a highly polished, by-the-books, prestige film.

UNBROKEN1

The first scene is the film’s best. We meet Louie (Jack O’Connell) as a B-24 bombardier on a bombing run over the Pacific. It’s a tense and well-shot sequence featuring anti-aircraft explosions and Japanese fighter planes. During this time we get our first flashback which patches together a bit of his childhood. He’s constantly in trouble although we never know why. But don’t worry, we get yet another flashback that shows him finding his way by running for his high school track team. This leads to an incredible experience running in the Olympic games.

From there the film spends a lot of time on Louie being stranded at sea and his time spent at various Japanese internment camps. These segments give us several exciting and inspirational moments. But they also bog the film down because Jolie stays at each place too long. Louie’s experience on a raft with two fellow soldiers is harrowing stuff. There are all sorts of dangers and threats they face, but too much time is spent showing them afloat drained by the glaring sun and starvation.

UNBROKEN2

And then there are the prison camps. Again, some tremendous scenes that are genuinely moving and sometimes difficult to watch. Seeing a sadistic Japanese corporal’s obsession with torturing Louie is an uncomfortable but effective experience. But as before we spend to much time there. Jolie pounds us with scene after scene of torture and cruelty and she doesn’t know when to move on or to wrap things up. It’s not that we become numb to what we are seeing, but it does lose its effect as it grows more repetitive. Eventually I found myself checking out.

“Unbroken” is a competent and well-intentioned movie centered around an inspiring true story. Louie Zamperini’s life was something to behold and we get a feel for that in this film. At the same time the movie is undermined by Angelina Jolie’s direction. She has a good visual technique, but her deliberate lingering zaps much of the life out of the film. It runs a good 30 minutes too long and I checked my watch more than once. But I don’t want to write the movie off. If you can wade through these bloated patches there are several things to like. Louie Zamperini died a few months before the film premiered. It’s wonderful to know that his life, first captured in a novel by Laura Hillenbrand, has now been brought to an even broader audience. The movie may not live up to its potential, but it does tell a story that deserves to be told.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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29 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Unbroken”

  1. Excellent work, I’m curious to see where this winds up on Jolie’s scale of self-righteousness. The only other film of hers that I’ve seen (that she directed, that is) is ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ and that one was just so heavy-handed it was difficult to imagine her getting a green light for another film. I was certain no one would buy tickets for her next, but here we are. Sounds like ‘Unbroken’ is not quite as harsh as it. I’m iffy on checking this out in theaters, but perhaps I will.

    • Honestly I wouldn’t recommend sitting through it at the theater. The opening scene is the only thing that would stand out on the big screen. Plus it’s too long. I would want my comfy couch if I was going to wade through the excess again.

      Jolie hasn’t impressed me yet. She does shoot some good scenes in this one, but she just bogs everything down and has no sense of pacing. The movie isn’t a total wash but the story deserved better.

      • You know, that’s really enough of a caution to make me put this in the back seat. At least for now. There are SOO many other things to get to at the moment! 🙂

      • EXACTLY. I would recommend seeing it at some point. I wouldn’t recommend going to the theater especially if there are other things you want to see.

      • yep. Selma, Top Five, Inherent Vice, Into the Woods are all up there for me currently. Lots of work to do!

  2. The two biggest flaws from my point of view were the absence of his spiritual redemption that came after he arrived home, and skipping his time at USC, where he met a guy who turned out to be a Japanese spy. The story is amazing, the film is simply satisfactory. You said almost everything else I felt about the film. Fight On Louie!

    • And you know, those are two parts of his story that could’ve been told during some of the time we spend on the ocean and in the internment camps. It definitely would’ve given us more about this amazing man.

  3. I am waiting on this one. The screenplay is written by Coen Brothers and its shot by Roger Deakins, that’s good reason enough for me to watch. 🙂

    • The Coens were hired to rewrite the script. Not sure what transpired there. I’m a huge Coen brothers fan and there isn’t even a hint of them in the screenplay. Its really strange. That was something that had really intrigued me and prodded me to go ahead and see it.

      I don’t think you’ll regret waiting.

  4. Great review Keith. Not hearing amazing reviews for this, but I would still be interested in checking it out. I haven’t seen anything Jolie has directed. I am curious.

  5. Spot on review Keith. I felt exactly the same as you; it’s just unrepentant torture and hardship and by the end I was tired of it and that scene where he’s holding the wooden beam is clearly supposed to be the big money shot moment that just didn’t really hit home for me. Great performances though which definitely helped.

    • The money shot loses its pop thanks to the audience being completely worn down by the other stuff. Plus it is a scene the we have seen in the trailer, on television promos, and even on the poster. There was nothing surprising or effective about it.

  6. That’s the idea had about Unbroken, although I haven’t seen it yet. I feel like some critics have been way too harsh, but I like how you explained it – the movie sounds like it was too focused on being an inspirational hit. I definitely want to see it at some point, because I heard the book was absolutely incredible. Great review, Keith!

    • Thanks so much Kristin. It truly is an incredible story. Unfortunately it hits so many familiar notes and it doesn’t know when to move on. I really wish it would have pruned some of the ocean and labor camp scenes and added some of his life that they chose to omit.

  7. I agree with what you said about Jolie not seeming to know when to condense segments of the film. I think in alot of ways it was because tried to drive home this idea of his “unbrokeness” which was to the detriment of the film and often his portrayal of a 3-dimensional character. At times I felt that I lost the sense of knowing anything else about him.

    • Ii love the way you out it Shala. Couldn’t have said it better. There is so much more of his story that could have been told with a little pruning. Its ends up being a decent movie but one that never seems to end.

  8. Hey Keith! I was so looking forward to this when they first announced it. I so admire Mr Zamperini and the extraordinary life he went through. To me though, what’s just as fascinating is his later life post-war, when he converted to Christianity in a Billy Graham crusade, which inspired him to seek out his Japanese captors in order to forgive them. Then I read in many Christian blogs that Jolie left all that part out, which is such a huge missed opportunity here. To me, his ability to forgive is as big a miracle as him surviving the prison camp. That’s why I still haven’t seen this one yet, and it sounds like there are bigger problems w/ the film even apart from that topic. I might rent it one day, but I think I’d rather just buy the book if I want to know the FULL story of Mr. Zamperini.

    • Ruth you are so right. Such a fascinating story that is shortchanged by the film. It wastes so much time in other areas and then gives us a couple of text captions right before the end credits to cover his conversion and spirit of forgiveness. Frustrating. I has its moments, but it drops the ball.

      • I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, Hollywood does this all the time and they never learn that leaving out the important part of any story never benefits the film one bit.

        Btw Keith, I just featured a documentary that I think you’d enjoy. Check it out when you have a moment 😉

  9. Passing on this one for now. Can’t take playbook historical dramas that have long and bloated running times like this. Setting this on a back burner for now and may catch it sometime when it hits VOD or as a rental. Thanks Keith!

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