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unbroken
Click for full sized poster

Unbroken

Starring Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Alex Russell,
Screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen and Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson
Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand
Directed by Angelina Jolie
website: www.unbrokenfilm.com

IN SHORT: A great television commercial. A terrible movie ... for all the wrong reasons. [Rated PG-13.137 minutes]

In one way, Angelina Jolie's film Unbroken is a metaphorical history of twentieth century America. Think back to what you may remember of History classes in elementary and middle school. How America was built as wave upon wave of immigrant groups fled their native lands to begin again on the American side of the gates at Ellis Island. Irish fled after a famine. Jews were evicted from Russia. Italians were the last to get through the doors, just before immigration papers became necessary. Before finding their place in the patchwork that is America, each wave was saddled with slur names and the first generation of children was savaged by the second or third generation of children of earlier immigrants. This is where Unbroken begins . . . in Torrance, California with a young Louis Zamperini (C.J. Valleroy) getting the stuffing beat out of him by "superior" natural born American kids. Louis is the child of Italian immigrants who speak virtually no English. It is his older brother Pete (John D'Leo) who toughens the kid up. Yes, Louis learns to run from a fight; what is unleashed is a natural talent which earns a star role on the High School track team.

Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) earns a place on the 1936 Olympic team and runs the 5000 meter race. Those Olympic Games, held in Berlin, are remembered for Jesse Owens total embarrassment of the Aryan Master Race mentality. Lost in that historical brouhaha is Zamperini's final lap in the 5000 meter race, run so fast that it earned him a place in the record books and his own Sunday panel in the popular Ripley's Believe It Or Not comic strip.

Then came War. Pete (Alex Russell) joins the Navy. Louis serves in the Army Air Corps. as a bombardier on a B-29 plane in the Pacific. The mission which brings Unbroken into focus is not a bombing run. It is a search and rescue mission gone bad, leaving three survivors -- Zamperini with fellow crewmen Phil and Mac (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) -- in two life rafts, adrift in the Pacific for 47 days. That kind of survival would be a story in and of itself, but it does take place in the midst of a World War and when rescue comes, it is at the hands of the Japanese navy. What remains of Unbroken is an hour of physical and mental torture ending up in a Japanese Prisoner Of War camp brutally run by an officer named Watanabe (Japanese actor Miyavi). The camp prisoners have nicknamed him "the Bird." Say it to his face and you'd be dead on the spot. There is no "Geneva Convention" dictating rules for the treatment of POWs. Watanabe's duty to his Empire is to break the will of his captives. Zamperini's response is to stay alive.

Here is where the viewing experience falls apart. What comes next is not Hogan's Heroes. Unbroken becomes the story of a sadistic commander who struts around with a pair of bamboo canes bound together into a kind of whipping stick, liberally used at the whim of its owner. You've guessed it: Watanabe vs. Lou Zamperini. The film may accurately portray the real-life violence and brutality of the Japanese POW camps, but the depiction overwhelms the grunts in the audience and utterly diminishes all that has come before it. I guess we shouldn't have been surprised that all the young Japanese-Americans in our audience quietly slipped out of the theater.

It isn't that we have a weak stomach. It's that the back end of Unbroken is unrelenting and stripped (our) audience of any pride for Zamperini's endurance; or the tacked on screens of post-war accomplishments that beg for more explanation. For once, yes, you'll need to read the book. Be warned, because we've already done the google search for you, that what is described in the book is far worse than what you have seen on the big screen.

Survival stories can make great movies. Brutal one on one combats can make great movies. Jolie mixes the pair and then uses a sledgehammer to drive it home. The first half of Unbroken was a terrific sit. The second half was just about more than we could bear. Expect a lot of nominations. The Academy loves contradictions like this.

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The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.