Ranking as one of the best movies about World War II, initially, I approached “Unbroken”with considerable skepticism because actress Angelina Jolie directed it. Before she helmed “Unbroken,” Jolie had never seriously impressed me as more than just a competent actress in several memorable films. As it turns out, she made her first film “In the Land of Blood and Honey” back in 2011, but it slipped under my radar. Now, I plan to go back and see if any of the directorial genius that she displayed in “Unbroken” was apparent in her freshman effort. Whatever the case, this gripping Universal Pictures release chronicles the real-life feats of former Olympic track star Louis Zamperini. A ne’er-do-well juvenile delinquent from the wrong side of the tracks, Zamperini straightened his act out and became a track star who later competed in the controversial1936 Munich Olympics held in Nazi Germany. World War II derailed his dreams of participating in the Tokyo Olympics. Instead, he became a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and served as a bombardier in the Pacific Theater. Life was no picnic for this scrappy Italian-American youth. In 1943, Zamperini’s B-24 Liberator crashed at sea during an abortive rescue mission, and he wallowed in a raft for 47 days circled by sharks. Afterward, the Japanese rescued Zamperini and his two surviving crewmen, and our protagonist endured appalling torture at the hands of a sadistic prison camp commandant for two years. Relentlessly grim from fade-on to fade-out, this powerful PG-13 saga succeeds as an inspirational testament to an individual’s tenacity to triumph over well-nigh, insurmountable obstacles. If you think that life’s been tough for you, compare your experience to Zamperini’s inhumane ordeal.
“Replacement Killers” producer Matthew Baer spent 17 years bringing “Unbroken” to the silver screen. Four writers toiled on this project. Oscar winning “Fargo” scenarists Joel and Ethan Cohen re-wrote Richard “Water for Elephants” LaGravenese’s screenplay after he struggled with an earlier version penned by “Gladiator” scribe William Nicholson. Although Zamperini wrote his own memoir “Devil at my Heels” about his wartime exploits, Laura Hillenbrand’s long-time bestseller “Unbroken” proved instrumental not only in dispelling any doubts about his experiences, but it also convinced Universal to produce the film. Originally, Universal had optioned “Devil at My Heels” back in 1956 as a possible Tony Curtis movie but nothing happened. Initially, after Baer had appropriated the project, Nicolas Cage showed interest in starring in it but again the project fell apart. Eventually, Zamperini and Jolie met and bonded over this epic endeavor. Word is Zamperini saw a rough cut of “Unbroken” before he died in at age 97 in July 2014. The themes of man versus nature and man versus man permeate this hypnotic tragedy that never runs out of momentum during its rigorous 137 minutes.
“Unbroken” unfolds in flashbacks before our hero lands in the hands of the Japanese. The combat scenes in the B-24 that open the film are exciting. During the first mission, the enemy strafe the bomb bay doors so dreadfully that Zamperini has to descend into the belly of the plane to manually retract them. While he struggles to close them, Japanese Zero fighters riddle the bomber with machine gun bullets. Zamperini’s plane is shot to ribbons, and the pilot has a difficult time landing without brakes on an airfield that isn’t long enough. This initial mission will keep you in a white-knuckled frenzy. Afterward, we learn how Louis’ older brother helped reform his trouble-prone little brother by started coaching him as a track runner. Jolie resumes this account of Zamperini’s life after his crew and he find themselves assigned to an inferior B-24 that literally comes apart on them during their mission and crashes in the ocean. Eight of the eleven crew die when they have to ditch in the Pacific. After their rescue, Zamperini is separated from his friends and faces harsh punishment at the hands of a Japanese corporal nicknamed ‘the Bird’ who shows no mercy where Zamperini is concerned. The Bird threatens to murder a fellow prisoner if Zamperini’s own men don’t beat the stuffing out of him.
Shrewdly, Jolie cast “Unbroken” with largely unknown talent. The only recognizable actors are Garrett Hedlund from “TRON: Legacy” and Jai Courtney of “A Good Day to Die Hard.” British actor Jack O’Connell delivers an impeccable performance as Zamperini. He makes a convincing as well as sympathetic hero for whom you can cheer. Neither Jolie nor her quartet of writers relies on gung-ho clichés to enhance the storytelling. Once Zamperini winds up in the hands of the Japanese, everything becomes a suspenseful contest of wills to see who will win in the end. Never at any time does “Unbroken” degenerate into a standard-issue World War II actioneer. Wisely, Jolie knows exactly how far she can take the torture scenes before you want to avert your eyes. The scene that will jolt you the most occurs in the Pacific. As exceptional as he is as Zamperini, O’Connell is matched blow for blow by Japanese actor Takamasa Ishihara as the villainous ‘Bird.’ Bird singles out Zamperini for extreme punishment and humiliation. Jolie maintains the focus throughout on Zamperini and never dwells on the conventions of the genre. One film critic has argued that all Jolie does is copy scenes from various landmark World War II movies. I’ve seen virtually every World War II movie ever made, and Jolie doesn’t turn her aerial scenes into “Catch 22” any more than she rips off “Chariots of Fire” for the running sequences. “Unbroken” stands on its own merits, and Jolie creates a palpable sense of suspense and tension without resorting to imitating better known movies. Mind you, “Unbroken” doesn’t follow Zamperini after the war when he descended into alcoholism and suffered post-traumatic stress from his P.O.W. confinement. As “Unbroken” fades out, Jolie provides as a post-script video of the actual Zamperini jogging in the Tokyo Olympics.

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