A triumph of survival and forgiveness
“Unbroken” is a film of tremendous beauty and rare elegance. It’s based on the life of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympian who became a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. His bomber was shot down over the Pacific. After being lost at sea for more than a month, he became a Japanese prisoner of war, subject to a warden who was later sought for war crimes due to his brutality.
None of these details are spoilers -- they’re all part of an historical account. I’m not sure one could spoil director Angelina Jolie’s movie either. Its profound effect isn’t simply due to the facts of its story. In fact, Jolie overcomes a surprisingly unremarkable script written in part by the Coen brothers, auteurs from whom I usually expect more.
What Jolie finds as a director are the details that shape a moment, that take a cinematic scene and turn it into a peek inside someone else’s memory. We see the sweeping wind across Louis’s hometown, seeming to echo his sense of being a loner. We hear the rustle of the palms in the tropical Pacific wind as Louis runs a time trial before a mission. We watch the glitter of the stars as Louis tries to sleep after a month in a lifeboat at sea.
Few of us lead epic lives, but we all have epic memories, the kind where we can still see and smell and even taste the moment. Jolie uses the astounding cinematography of Roger Deakins to evoke a sense of texture that is both artful and personal. Much in “Unbroken” is left unsaid -- themes aren’t debated in dialogue so much as hinted at in passing details. You get a sense how influenced Jolie’s been by directors she’s worked with as an actress, particularly the wry, spare, and evocative style of Clint Eastwood, where the most important words are always left unspoken.
Many critics have taken “Unbroken” to task for not being grand enough or for focusing on the brutal, wartime aspects of Louis’s life. Jolie’s aim here is to communicate a message of forgiveness and, rather than show a pained veteran dramatically learning how to offer it to those who wronged him, she focuses on Louis’s time as a prisoner-of-war. She tallies the moments that are unforgivable in order to build up how insurmountable a task forgiveness can be. In showing us Louis’s will to overcome life-or-death moments, she displays how understanding and forgiving your enemies is a similarly noble act of inner strength.
That can’t be communicated by dialogue or by beautiful cinematography. It’s communicated through empathy, and in Jolie’s hands that means finding the precise visuals and storytelling moments that create a memory: the shadows that fill the room while a father disciplines a child and the mother holds another. The look that mother gives when she knows her son is watching her cook from scratch, the simple, private pride of a humble moment. A photograph of Louis’s captor as a young boy, with his own strict father and impossible expectations. The glitter of bombers and fighters on the Tokyo horizon, signaling a war that’s drawing to a close. Jolie is not a perfect filmmaker here. She’s something more important -- a storyteller who communicates with a powerful empathy that I believe audiences are understanding more than critics. The packed house I watched with gave the film a standing ovation. How rare is that?
If the goal of a movie is to inspire, “Unbroken” does that in spades. I walked out feeling uplifted and more determined in my own goals than when I’d went in. If the goal of the movie is to make me contemplate the brutality of war and torture, and to better ennoble and idealize the values in forgiveness, it does that, too.
“Unbroken” doesn’t set out to overwhelm you the way so many big-budget war films do. It doesn’t seek to redefine what makes a film either, instead choosing a very classical approach to storytelling. The effect it has is quiet, philosophical, and spiritual, but it’s not without its compelling moments and tense sequences. This is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. There are cliché moments, but you’re allowed to be cliché when you do it this well. O’Connell’s is a fully inhabited performance. You don’t get the sense that he’s acting, so much as living and breathing the hours of another man.
Three-and-a-half out of four stars. “Unbroken” is rated PG-13 for some POW camp scenes of brutality.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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