Angelina Jolie tells Louis Zamperini’s story of survival and inspiration
Starring Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara & Domnhall Gleeson
Directed by Angelina Jolie
As far as real-life, all-American heroes go, they don’t get any red, white and bluer than Louis Zamperini, the U.S. Olympic runner, World War II bombardier and prisoner-of-war survivor whose amazing story was told in author Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling 2010 book, Unbroken.
Now Angelina Jolie, making her second theatrical outing behind the camera as a director, brings Hillenbrand’s book to the screen in a grandiose dramatization of Zamperini’s epic ordeal during the war, with flashbacks to his rascally boyhood in Torrence, Calif., his surprising success as a high-school track star, and his wide-eyed trip to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
The movie begins with a bang—quite literally—as we’re taken inside the belly of a B24 bomber, alongside Zamperini (Irish actor Jack O’Connell) and his crew mates as they crack jokes, then crack down and delivering their goods, fend off a fierce attack by Japanese Zeros and finally bring their badly damaged plane in for a very rough landing. A later mission sets up the dire circumstances that put Zamperini and two of his fellow crewmen (Domnhall Gleeson and Finn Whitrock) adrift in life rafts and finally into the hands of Japanese captors.
Zamperini (who died earlier in 2014, at age 97) would spend more than two years in Pacific prison and work camps, and the heart of the movie is the torment he received from a young, terrifying prison warden called “the Bird” (Japanese singer-songwriter Takamasa Ishihara, making his acting debut), whose soft, “feminine” appearance masked a grotesque sadism.
O’Connell gives a tremendous, star-making performance, transforming his entire physicality to depict the ravages of his ever-worsening conditions. Ishihara is galvanizing in an unforgettable “bad guy” role that hints of much more complexity and ambiguity than the script gives him rein to fully explore.
The movie looks fantastic, thanks to the camera work of award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brings a prestigious, pedigreed master’s touch to every scene: the danger—and the excitement—in the air; the desolation, desperation and drama of floating for weeks the ocean; the soul-sucking abominations of the prisons, where days and months seep into years.
The script—whose unlikely collaborators include Joel and Ethan Cohen, not typically known for such un-cynical, snark-free, drama—focuses a lot (perhaps too much) on suffering, agony and endurance, and not enough on just how, exactly, Zamperini came to circle back on the words of a sermon we watch him squirming through, as a boy: “Love thy enemy.”
One sequence depicts a weakened, starved and beaten “Louie” forced by the Bird to pick up a heavy wooden beam and hold it above his head for what the movie ticks off to feel like hours. Jolie presents it like a scene from The Passion of the Christ. That incident may very well have happened, but making Zamperini look like a saint—or more—seems like unnecessary sermonizing.
He wasn’t a saint, but he certainly was a great, inspiring man. And now his legacy includes a handsome movie monument to remind even more people of his service, his sacrifice and the incredible reserves of strength and resolve he used to keep his will, his faith, his courage and his call of duty to his country “unbroken.”
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine