“UNBROKEN” — ★★★½ — Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson; PG-13 (war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language); in general release.
“Unbroken” is an experience more than a movie. It is draining, exhausting and ultimately uplifting. It is a film you should certainly see once, though you probably won’t want to see it again.
And it’s probably the best faith-promoting film in a year that saw many attempts.
By now you are probably familiar with the film’s basic premise: world-class Olympian survives Japanese prison camp during World War II. Thanks to the film’s promotional efforts, your expectations may be set for another inspiring film based on a true story. We all know the guy lives, so no surprises, right?
“Unbroken” is deceptively powerful. Rather than dig in with the gritty interpretation of something like “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan,” “Unbroken” maintains just enough of a Hollywood sheen to keep you feeling safe.
Early on, the film feels like another story about a World War II bombardier squad, 1990’s “Memphis Belle.” Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is the good-looking, de facto leader of his team, dropping the bombs on targets in the Pacific theater and then scrambling around the airplane to help out once his job is done.
But flashbacks show us that Zamperini wasn’t always such a clean-cut American hero. Only the caring influence of his older brother, Pete (Alex Russell), helped turn him from an adolescent troublemaker into a scrappy, determined distance runner who made it all the way to the 1936 Olympics.
It’s brief as character arcs go, but it’s enough to help us understand how Zamperini behaves over the next hour and a half of the film. Once Zamperini is shot down over the Pacific Ocean, the flashbacks stop, and we stay with him as he survives one harrowing ordeal after another, starting with a lifeboat and eventually finishing in a Japanese prison camp where he faces a sadistic captor nicknamed "the Bird" (Takamasa Ishihara).
One of the truly impressive feats of “Unbroken” is that it gets you to feel the exhaustion of Zamperini’s ordeal in a relatively short amount of time. Rather than employ the fast-paced editing of today’s filmmaking, “Unbroken” works with deliberate calculation, not dragging, but not rushing, either. The total film is a little over two hours long, but it feels closer to three.
Keep in mind, that isn’t a criticism.
If Zamperini is the Oskar Schindler of “Unbroken,” then the Bird is its Amon Goeth. Throughout encounters in two different camps, the Bird seems to relish his opportunity to add to Zamperini’s anguish, treating him simultaneously as a confidant and a nemesis. Ishihara doesn’t quite measure up to Ralph Fiennes’ horrifying take on Goeth, but that might be a bar too high.
O’Connell is the actor carrying the real weight here (both literally and figuratively). His performance as Zamperini is admirable, and judging by the results, it appears the actor took the same advice his character heard from Pete: “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.”
“Unbroken” was directed by Angelina Jolie, who gets more attention for her adoptions and charity work these days than for her infrequent acting jobs. Her omission from the Golden Globes nominations was reported as a snub, and seeing “Unbroken,” it’s easy to see why.
The screenplay was penned by Joel and Ethan Coen and feels like a departure from the dark comic style they’ve traditionally employed for films such as“Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
It’s not quite as explicit in its moral message as a film like “Heaven is for Real,” but “Unbroken’s” theme of faith and perseverance in the face of adversity probably makes for the most moving religious film of the year. It’s not a preachy film, and that makes its message all the more effective.
“Unbroken” features profanity, violent content and some male nudity. While it isn’t especially graphic or gratuitous, it is definitely too much for younger audiences.
“Unbroken” is rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language; running time: 157 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.