By Bob Garver
Dec. 29, 2014. “Oh no, the depressing POW movie ‘Unbroken” was somehow the hottest new release of the Christmas holiday. Shoot, now I have to see it.” That was how I first reacted to the film’s box office success. I actually wasn’t surprised: the movie was playing on nearly 700 more screens than its nearest competitor, the fairy tale musical “Into the Woods.”
Still, I was hoping that families would turn out in droves for the more upbeat film so I wouldn’t have to cram something as off-putting as “Unbroken” into my busy weekend. But the success of the film turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because although it is not an enjoyable film in the lighthearted sense, I am definitely glad to have seen it.
The film tells the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic track star turned World War II hero. We follow him from his unpromising beginnings to his athletic accomplishments (which aren’t very interesting) to his service in the war (much more interesting) to a harrowing imprisonment of sorts on a lifeboat (even more interesting) to a more harrowing and much more literal imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp. He faces hardship at every turn, but of course, he will not break.
It should go without saying that Zamperini is a highly captivating main character. How can you not root for him as he overcomes every obstacle? And it’s not like there’s a shortage of obstacles in this movie. Zamperini has to push himself to conquer bullies, rival runners, enemy combatants, starvation, dehydration, isolation, beatings and more beatings.
The beatings are usually delivered by The Bird (Miyavi), the sadistic warden of the camp. Here we have one of the most memorable villains of the year. He will find any reason to beat up Zamperini and when he can’t he just beats him up for no reason. He refers to Zamperini as his “friend” on several occasions, and you can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or if he’s whacked out enough to really feel that way. He gets promoted out of the camp and shortly thereafter the prisoners and transfered to a new camp. When it’s revealed that The Bird is the warden of the new camp, Zamperini loses his composure more than he does at any other point in the film.
This is a beautifully shot movie. It opens on an appropriately distressing arial dogfight, complete with exploding black clouds of doom that contrast nicely with the innocent sky. The water underneath the lifeboat looks oddly inviting, even when it’s infested with sharks. And there’s a magnificent shot at the end during a group bathing session that alone will probably get the film nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
The only real detraction from this film is its first quarter, the troubled childhood followed by the athletic stardom. There’s no new territory here. Young Louis drinks, smokes, fights and considers himself a loser. His older brother gives him some tough love and inspires him, and gives him wisdom that he uses throughout life.
Then there are the races, which aren’t very impressive. Louis never seems to be running very fast because we’re always seeing the tail end of a long distance race. The film never successfully conveys the spirit of Louis’ endurance (at least not in the races), so what we’re left with is an exhausted runner puffing to the finish line slightly faster than the other exhausted runners.
“Unbroken” does get a little cheesy at times with its relentless “triumph of the human spirit” theme, which is why I think a lot of people don’t want to see this movie. But you should see it and fight through the parts that make you roll your eyes. You’ll find that in the end it’s hard to scoff at two hours of inspiring, heroic behavior.
Two and a half stars out of five.