MOVIE REVIEW: Unbroken

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"UNBROKEN"-- 4 STARS

Try as they may, it is impossible for a biographical film to cover all of the nuances of a man's life in two hours and change.   Equal to the argument of book adaptations always being better than their film counterparts, events, details, and facts are going to be changed, condensed, and modified to suit the entertainment packaging of movies.  Even this year, some biographical films have succeeded while others have failed in vast variety of ways.  The victories come from factual accuracy, casting, performance, and storytelling tone.  The failures come from excessive dramatization, sugarcoating, half-hearted efforts, and stagnant narratives.

For example, director Tate Taylor's "Get On Up," with Chadwick Boseman starring as James Brown, ranks as a rousing success because it overcame the usual (and necessary) evil of flashbacks in biopics with creative storytelling and a dynamic unknown lead who could perform up to snuff of the subject, warts and all.  "The Imitation Game" with Benedict Cumberbatch nestles its biography of Alan Turing in a tightly-orchestrated war film with prestige delivery from both filmmakers and the lead actor.  "Wild," the passion project of Reese Witherspoon, captures the internal struggles of a person that sear both the screen and the page from which it originated.  The masterful Clint Eastwood brought the right balance of wartime grit and non-sugar-coated heart to "American Sniper" and its core subject of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.  Lastly, I'll tell you about "The Railway Man" and Eric Lomax later (tipping my hand a little).  

On the other end of the spectrum, you'll find more tepid successes and partial failures, just in this year alone.  For as much as "American Sniper" was excellent, Clint's other 2014 film adapting, "Jersey Boys," adapting the Broadway biography of Franki Valli couldn't find an audience.  "Foxcatcher" drained the crackle and eccentricity out of what was supposed to be chilling crime drama led by Steve Carell's metamorphosis.  "The Theory of Everything," recently reviewed here, short-changed the science of Stephen Hawking and softened things down to a love story of a struggling marriage.  Each of those, according to this writer, rank as disappointments compared to those other examples.

The scope of this year's slate of biographical films culminates with "Unbroken," the story of Olympian and World War II veteran Louis "Louie" Zamperini.  Of all of this year's biopics, this is the one with the highest profile that you've been hearing about for the better part of two years.  This is the one getting the widest release, right here on Christmas Day.  This is the one with the most continuous Oscar hope since the end of last year's Academy Awards.  Even on this very website, in an editorial of long-range Oscar picks for 2015, written the day after the 2014 Oscars, I handicapped and predicted "Unbroken" as the most likely eventual Best Picture frontrunner.  Was all of the hype and all of the anticipation rewarded?  Would it rank a success or a failure as a biographical film?

The final results are undoubtedly mixed, in this writer's opinion, but favor the positive.  Next to "Interstellar," "Unbroken" will join the conversation as one of the most polarizing films of the year.  The strong opinions are already bubbling up to the surface.  Peruse the range of entertainment websites and Rotten Tomatoes collections and you're going to read and hear a wavering balance of praise matched, step-for-step, by stark criticism.  Mark this website down for seeing more appreciation than dissatisfaction in "Unbroken."

"Unbroken" is a film tailor-made to commend the "Greatest Generation" coined by journalist Tom Brokaw.  Louie Zamperini, played by impressive and relative newcomer Jack O'Connell, came from humble and untamed troublemaker beginnings as the youngest son of Italian immigrants in southern California during the early years of the Great Depression.  It wasn't until his big brother Pete (Alex Russell of "Chronicle") turned Louie's pent-up energy into running that he began to get his compass pointed in the right direction.  Dubbed the "Torrance Tornado," Louie set records as one of the fastest long-distance runners in U.S. high school history.  At 19, this earned him a trip to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin where he impressed on the world stage.  

All of that makes up gleaming flashbacks to the ongoing strife and hell that lies before Louie during World War II years later.  Louie is now a keen and focused bombardier on a B-24 under the command of Russell "Phil" Phillips ("About Time" star Domhnall Gleason).  When engine malfunction on their backup plane causes an emergency crash landing in the ocean 900 miles south of Hawaii, only Louie and two other members of the 11-man crew survive.  The three dwindled to two and were marooned at sea for 47 grueling days before being picked up by the Japanese.  For the next two-and-half-years, Louie endured multiple prisoner-of-war camps, drawing specific ire from Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Japanese recording artist turned actor Miyavi), the cruel commanding officer nicknamed "The Bird."  Those experiences of fortitude, punishment, and enduring survival make up the unbelievable and extraordinary story of "Unbroken."

So often, people see, hear, or read a story or a headline and think "Gosh, that would make a great movie."  As Tom Brokaw will tell you that Zamperini's story "is one of the greatest American stories of the 20th century."  Plenty will find it too incredible to believe.  Zamperini himself wrote two memoirs and Universal Pictures has had the film rights since the 1950's.  It wasn't until "Seabiscuit" author Laura Hillenbrand tackled Louie's story from the outside with her best-selling biography "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption" in 2010 that Hollywood returned with determination to tell this story.  

The film, as you have likely heard, is directed by Academy Award-winning actress Angelina Jolie, a lightning rod in her own right to bringing attention towards "Unbroken."  This is her second feature after the 2011 Bosnian War foreign language film "In the Land of Blood and Honey."  Fellow Academy Award winners Joel and Ethan Coen, along with Oscar nominees Richard LaGravenese ("The Bridges of Madison County," "The Fisher King") and William Nicholson ("Gladiator," "Les Miserables") combined their writing efforts to adapt Hillenbrand's non-fiction book into a workable movie.  As said prior, the result is a positive-leaning mix.

It has to be said that a war story combining nearly 50 days lost at sea with over 500 days of enemy captivity is not going to be a pretty picture or sunny experience.  Jolie and the screenwriters, wisely or unwisely (you make the call), focus on the survival and resiliency of Hillenbrand's take on Zamperini's survival experiences.  You won't get to see his chummy opportunity to meet Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Games and steal his personal flag, him befriending famous fighter ace "Pappy" Boyington while in the POW camps, or his college days and further athletics before the war at the University of Southern California.  Those moments, layers, and flashbacks are not included.  For the majority of the expansive 137-minute running time, "Unbroken" is a difficult film to swallow.  Little is sugarcoated and few punches are pulled within the film's PG-13 rating to reenact and recreate the jarring and harrowing experiences of Zamperini as a POW.  Jolie puts young O'Connell through the ringer as the lead and you will feel put through the ringer too.  

In many respects, "Unbroken" is far from the chipper kind of holiday entertainment you're going to find down the hall at the multiplex in the form of "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb."  Honestly, this isn't a good date movie.  This isn't the "feel-good movie of the season."  "Unbroken" is a stern and sobering lesson that isn't for everyone.  There is a good chance it is something you will see once and not want to see again because of its difficult material, even at a PG-13 level.  Adding that all up, one end of the polarizing crowd is going to call it depressing, flat, and, likely, boring.  That's both fair and unfair.  

Personally, I think there's a strength to be found in witnessing this portion of the Louis Zamperini story, no matter how ugly it is and how hard it is to watch.  This is a journey worth the experience of thinking on the echoes of a painful period of peril.  War like this is horrible, tough, depressing, and taxing.  To match that, movies have to dive to those places and I, for one, can handle, respect, and appreciate that.  After watching "Unbroken," one could and should seek out the documentaries, interviews, and first-person accounts of Zamperini himself to describe, corroborate, and justify the film. 

With this subject matter, sensitizing it more than they already did for a PG-13, would take away from the truth and realism that is important to this biography.  Dumb it down and polish it up and you might as well slap a Disney logo on it, change the movie entirely, or call it "The Monuments Men."  That would be unfair to the legacy of Zamperini and the integrity of the filmmakers.  Veteran cinematographer and Coen brothers collaborator Roger Deakins photographs the sugar-honey-iced-tea out of these bleak locales and circumstances and creates beauty lying just outside of the hero's fingertips.  Busy composer Alexandre Desplat crafts a somber, but poignant musical score to evoke reaction without manufactured or repetitive heartstrings.  In my opinion, the result is a genuine success artistically and thematically.  Jolie and company got more right than wrong.  "Unbroken" was worth all of the effort and attention paid to it.

To be fair with equal criticism, "Unbroken" is, however, missing one enormous and important fraction to the entirety of the Louie Zamperini story that has to be marked down as a missed opportunity and partial failure.  The final Hillenbrand title adjective and the closing third of her book covers the theme of redemption and Louie's life after the horrors of World War II.  Because of the lengthy focus spent on the ocean and POW experiences, Louie's path towards dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, marriage, fatherhood, his reborn Christian faith, and his quest to forgive his captors are reduced to epilogue notes before the credits.  With a better use of the film's running time and storytelling, that portion of his life could have (and probably should have) easily been incorporated into "Unbroken."  

It has to be said.  Those missing elements would have greatly strengthened the film's impact as a complete and inspiring story.  Sure, you're daring a movie to flirt with three-hours, but they would have added to the strong arc of character development that was already set forth.  "Unbroken" still hits many of those edifying and moving chords in the time in holds you, but falls short of "The Railway Man" from earlier this year.  Starring Oscar winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, that very similar film, while amped to its own level of dramatization and exaggeration, is rooted completely in a former POW's struggle with PTSD and his powerful journey towards redemption and forgiveness.  It gets that portion dead right and still makes room for the hard stuff of POW torture and abuse.  Overall, it's a better balance.  If you see "Unbroken" and find yourself needing another step of comparison for the polarizing reactions, seek "The Railway Man" out and you will be less disappointed and/or even more inspired.

LESSON #1: THE GROWTH FROM DELINQUENCY TO BECOMING A HEROIC EXAMPLE-- This is a smaller lesson than the next two in the grand scheme of things, but still a good one.  In his youth, Louie drank, smoked, and was nearly expelled from school until he found an outlet for his energy and a bearing for this determination and focus.  For a portion of his life, running was his answer and it brought him out of the dire lowness from which he came.  Later, he exuded being a good officer and strong example both before and during his lost days and captivity.  After the war (and after the film's reach), his influence improved and continued with his motivational and religious involvement.  This man's journey from nothing to something is what make's Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" tick.  All it takes is that first engaging challenge and goal.  The rest blooms and grows from there.

LESSON #2: SURVIVING HARMFUL AND PAINFUL ISOLATION AND CAPTIVITY-- "Unbroken" is a dual survival story depicting Louie's 47 days lost a sea and also his two-plus years as prisoner of war.  Just one of those experiences would have tested a man's strength and will to untested levels.  Louie had both odysseys and lived to tell about it.  In a day and age where forgetting our cell phone at home gets labeled "agony," stories such as Zamperini's are shocking and laborious reminders of how lucky we are to not be put in those circumstances that completely and truly define agony.  Making it a day without social media isn't survival.  Overcoming what Louie did is the real definition of survival.  

LESSON #3: THE POWER OF RESILIENCY-- Early in the film, a tagline given to Louie by his brother Pete is "if you can take it, you can make it."  Pete uses it to push Louie through the pain and fatigue of running.  While some will find that cheesy and fit for an motivational poster, there's truth to the power of being resilient.  Louie's Olympic athlete reputation and status brought him both higher expectations of toughness from his peers, but also undue signaling out from his Japanese captors like "The Bird."  He was a propaganda tool and too important to kill, so Louie endured moments worse than his fellow Allies.  Pushed to his limits and true to the title of the film, Louie never backed down and got up from every defeat to live the life he did, one that extends beyond the boundaries of this film.

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