Louis Zamperini’s story was bound to become a movie. The Olympian, war veteran and survivor’s tale of resilience and triumph of the human spirit is astounding. From his early years of fighting off bullies, training for the Olympics, war-time heroics, deep sea survival and prisoner-of-war camp degradation… we’re cast into an epic and powerful true story.
Zamperini’s true life survival adventure caught the attention of filmmakers after it was adapted by Laura Hillenbrand into the book, Unbroken. The story had all the earmarks of a classic and was entrusted in the hands of Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey), with the Coen brothers signed on as screenwriters.
Jack O’Connell plays a young Louis Zamperini. The 300: Rise of an Empire actor has some similarities with Anton Yelchin and commands a likable, determined and noble character. Casting O’Connell helps give Unbroken a wash of authenticity and source integrity, instead of relying on a big name star to add clout.
It’s a star-making role and O’Connell will no doubt become a regular, playing off other up-and-coming actors like About Time’s Domnhall Gleeson, Tron: Legacy’s Garrett Hedlund and a newcomer in Takamasa Ishihara as the despicable Watanabe. The fresh-faced cast set the podium for O’Connell to shine as Zamperini’s courage and will-to-live inspired both his friends and enemies.
While Unbroken is a survival adventure, the story also charts Zamperini’s faith journey. While not overtly portrayed and almost delimited to an “if you get me out of this” pact with God, the film prides self-belief and the triumph of the human spirit over Zamperini’s reliance on God to provide more universal appeal.
Jolie is an adept and sure-footed director, delivering a commendable film that brings the epic tale of Unbroken to the world. While an incredible true story, you can’t help but feel Unbroken has taken inspiration from films like Memphis Belle,Chariots of Fire, Life of Pi… bleeding into its contemporary, The Railway Man.
The US Army Air Corps and its young crew become an early focus of the film as we’re introduced to the squadron, drawing parallels with Memphis Belle, while Chariots of Fire meets Forrest Gump flashbacks bring us up-to-speed. Just as we’ve got a rough idea of Zamperini’s shadow, a Life of Pi deep sea survival adventure plays out as our hero cheats death again. Then Unbroken’s strong parallels with The Railway Man begin to rise to the surface as he gets captured as a prisoner-of-war.
The echoes of these great films reinforce the collective power of Zamperini’s story, yet dilute the overall effect of Unbroken, giving us that “haven’t I seen this all before” feeling. The quality of the film-making disguises the seams well enough, yet Jolie’s film is safe and not distinct enough to chisel out it’s own path. We buy into O’Connell’s sincerity and his emotional integrity keeps us invested in his character’s journey, reaching an iconic and surprisingly moving crescendo.
Unbroken delivers a decent payoff after laying firm foundations, but doesn’t quite reach the lofty promise of its incredible true story. The film’s Oscar intentions are noted on the back of some solid performances and proficient film-making, yet it’s not quite original or distinct enough to separate itself from the rest of the pack.
We keep rooting for Zamperini’s heart and mind struggle, despite his recurrent victories… perhaps Unbroken would have been more transcendent and memorable if it was his soul that was in the greatest danger.
The bottom line: Inspirational
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