Of all the Oscar bait movies that come out early in the new year, Unbroken may have been the one I was least interested in seeing. Sure, it looked like a more than interesting true story, but it also looked like one I’ve seen enough before. Someone conquers all odds, refuses to give in to some terrible oppression, then comes out the end stronger and more inspirational than ever. Seeing Angelina Jolie’s name attached as Director didn’t make me dismiss it, but it definitely didn’t make me any more inclined to see it. Then I saw two names in the writing credits, Joel and Ethan Coen. That was all it took. Once I knew there was a Coen Brothers connection, I had to see Unbroken immediately.
Flying a bombing mission over the Pacific in World War II, the plane of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) barley survives a barrage of bullets from a squadron of Japanese Zeroes. But they manage to limp back to their landing strip and crash land relatively safely. Then it’s a flash back to young Louis, being made fun for his Italian heritage and acting out on the verge of delinquency. Until his brother, Pete (Alex Russell) sees potential in Louis as a runner, and coaches him through childhood and adolescence.
Back to WWII, and Louis and his crewmates have a dodgy plane for what should be an easy mission; Find another crew of pilots presumed floating at sea after abandoning their own damaged plain. But, it turns out that Louis is one unlucky son of a bitch. Without any threat of Japanese attack, their plane malfunctions anyway, leaving Louis and two crew members in a life raft, just in time to flash back again. This time, to Louis’ record breaking Olympics success.
After more than 40 days at sea, they’re finally rescued. But because this is Louis Zamperini, you know that it’s not all good news. Picked up by a Japanese battle ship, Louis and his pilot, Domhnall Gleeson as Phil, end up in a POW camp that makes their time at sea seem like a P&O cruise holiday. With almost all of the torture carried out single handedly by camp commander, Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara).
Unbroken is a hard slog. And by that I don’t mean it’s too long, boring or badly made. I mean it’s a story about a man who had to endure some truly terrible shit, and Jolie never tries to sugar coat any of that. Which I guess is the best way it could do the story, and the man behind it, justice. If this is an accurate retelling of what happened to the real Louis Zamperini, than Unbroken’s greatest achievement is giving the audience some understanding, no matter how small, of everything this dude went through.
And it does it without seeming like feeling like a school lesson or homework. I complain a lot around hear about too many movies being too long. So when I say that Unbroken’s almost two and a half hour running time never feels like a single second too much, that’s a pretty high compliment. As Angelina Jolie’s first crack behind the camera, it’s a remarkable achievement, telling a grand story on a grand scale, while never feeling like it’s too impressed with itself. She gets the story told in a snappy, vibrant way, while never losing sight of the horrible actions and treatment at its core.