Sunday, December 28, 2014

Unbroken / **½ (PG-13)

Louis Zamperini: Jack O’Connell
Wantanabe: Miyavi
Phil: Domhnall Gleeson
Fitzgerald: Garrett Hedlund
Mac: Finn Wittrock
Cup: Jai Courtney

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Angelina Jolie. Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand. Running time: 137 min. Rated PG-13 (for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language).

The story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian American Olympic athlete who served his country as a bombardier in the Pacific Theater of WWII and was captured after surviving for 47 days at sea only to suffer the torments of a prisoner of war camp in Japan, is certainly the stuff of Hollywood. His story and life are testaments to what Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation. Zamperini experienced more in the first quarter of his life than many ever experience in a lifetime. While the life is great, the movie leaves much of it unexplored in detail and emotions.

We meet Zamperini on a bombing run. As the plane approaches its target, the pilot hands over all control to the bombardier. From this point until the moment the payload is delivered, the bombardier has total control over the plane and fate of its crew. The audience experiences a harrowing approach, with artillery exploding all around the plane as the crew waits on the bombardier to spot the perfect target and patiently deliver. In this case, Zamperini delivers a perfect payload at a price as the plane is damaged and the pilot must limp it back to base without breaks for a landing on a short runway.

Director Angelina Jolie delivers a spectacular war sequence here, explaining the operating procedures of a bomber and its crew through example and a brief introduction of the characters held within. It is tense and invests the audience immediately in the fate of the crew and Zamperini. As the wartime scenes continue, we learn of the friendship held between Zamperini and the pilot Russell ‘Phil’ Phillips, played by rising star Domhnall Gleeson. Phil is a religious man and Zamperini tries to understand faith but lacks his own.

Throughout these war sequences Jolie scatters flashbacks to Zamperini’s childhood and life before the war. We discover he was a troubled youth, fighting bullies and authority figures for the prejudices shown against his Italian heritage. His parents are immigrants. His mother only speaks Italian. His brother translates. His brother also sees the dangerous path his younger sibling is dancing around and steers him toward running as an outlet for his aggressive nature. Eventually Zamperini becomes the fastest high school runner in the nation and wins himself a trip to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. As Jesse Owens stunned the world winning four gold medals in the face of the Nazi host country, Zamperini surprisingly took the lead for the American athletes in his event, the 5000-meter. Although he did not medal, his sites were set for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo until they were canceled due to the war.

Unfortunately, these scenes intended to flesh out the extraordinary life Zamperini lived leading up to the war are merely sketches designed to deliver the facts but lacking an important human connection. This is surprising considering the talent involved in this screenplay. With Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo”), and Oscar nominees Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King”) and William Nicholson (“Gladiator”) adapting Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, you’d expect a masterwork. Alas, much seems to be missing from this screenplay. There is an isolation to Zamperini’s character that is never explained. The screenplay focuses so intently on his World War II experiences that all else in his life seems lost in the mix, including most human connections with other people in his life. His time at the Olympics seems staged more to impress that the Nazis were running it than to show what an achievement it was for him. There is no dialogue spoken by Zamperini throughout the Olympiad sequence.

Only once Zamperini’s bomber crew is forced to ditch their plane in the ocean due to mechanical issues while on a rescue mission does the movie really seem to move into a more personal experience. Surviving for 47 days with his friend and another crewmember, Zamperini is shown to have real personal connections with other people for the first time in the film. This sequence fleshes out his friendship with his lifelong friend Phil and show him working through adversity and tension with the other survivor, Frances McNamara. This is the only sequence in the film when we really get a sense of what Zamperini feels about his situation and the people who surround him. When he is rescued by the Japanese and separated from Phil, the movie once again fails to establish relationships in the POW camp.

Jack O’Connell distinguishes himself as Zamperini. He gives a powerful performance despite the emotional limitations of the script. During his interment, he gets on the wrong side of a guard, Mutsohiro “Bird” Watanabe, who would eventually find himself on General MacArthur’s list of 40 most wanted war criminals in the Japan. Japanese musician Miyavi is effectively cold and heartless as the tyrannical warden adding just enough of a glimpse into his damaged psyche to suggest multiple dimensions.

It is without pleasure that I discuss the failings of the screenplay of a film about such a remarkable American. His story is fascinating, and for those who are interested, the movie will effectively entertain and inform about this remarkable life. It seems to be missing too many pieces for me to get behind it, however. It is also unfortunate that my criticisms should be pointed in Jolie’s direction as well, since she could effectively help break down many gender barriers in Hollywood with such a high profile and male centric film as this. However, the failings of the screenplay could have and should have been easily identified by the film’s director, whose job it is to fix these script holes with suggestions for rewrites and even insertion of scenes and moments on her own clarifying attitudes and emotions of the lead character. Jolie’s skill with the camera matches any male director’s. It remains to be seen, however, whether she can rise to the echelon of artistic storytelling achievement necessary to be a truly important director. Zamperini’s place in American history is safe, though.

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