Louis Zamperini lived the most extraordinary of lives and it is told in director Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. What is astonishing is any one part of his experiences could have been an inspirational tale for millions to be uplifted by. Jolie is the perfect filmmaker to capture Zamperini’s spirit and story and bring it to the silver screen.
Unbroken is based on the bestselling book by Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit) and in a stroke of genius, the screenplay was penned by Ethan and Joel Coen -- yup, the Coen brothers! The film chronicles Zamperini’s life by centering the story on his service in World War II. As seen in the Unbroken trailer, he is on a rescue mission high above the Pacific when his plane crashes. He is one of few survivors who try to make a go at it in the flimsiest of life rafts.
We cut back to his humble and troubled beginnings. Zamperini was on a path that would have ended with him in jail or dead. His brother pushes him to start running, and his first path to greatness commences. He would go to Berlin and win a gold medal in the Olympics and inspire the nation (for the first time).
Jolie expertly moves back and forth between her present (the war) and his past with efficient ease. Zamperini would spend 47 days in a life raft, barely clinging to survival. He would then be rescued… by the Japanese and then spend years in a prisoner of war camp. See, there are two other movies there. There is the raft experience and also surviving the brutality of being the subject of the ire of the head guard (nicknamed The Bird), who seeks to make an example out of him because of his celebrity status. It is all in an effort to quell the rest of the prisoners.
The Coens and Jolie masterfully package his life in a two-hour film that had to be the largest of challenges. How do you capsulize someone’s life into a movie? That question has daunted more experienced directors who have tried and failed in the most difficult of film genres, the biopic. By criss-crossing through time, filmmakers remind us of all that has made Zamperini the man he is. There is a reason he is able to survive and triumph and it is because of everything that came before.
Jolie struck gold with the casting of Jack O’Connell. The entire movie seriously rests on his shoulders and if the actor charged with this iconic role faltered in any way, the movie itself would fail.
O’Connell is astounding and he traverses the entire spectrum of emotion in the human palette. It is clear the actor has a gift and with the aid of his gifted director (who knows a thing or two about the craft) they collectively bring something truly special to the screen that is sure to inspire generations to come as there is nothing more permanent in popular culture as the medium of film.
Our only issue with the film, and it is slight, our Unbroken review has to report, is that the power potential is not quite met. But, that is understandable. As we stated prior, there are really three potentially riveting movies here. There is almost too much story to tell, but the Coens and Jolie do their best to bring the most compelling and plot-driving moments of a life full of highlights to the screen.
What works in the long form of a book, in this case by Hillenbrand, is always a tough task to bring to the screen -- ask any filmmaker who has undertaken the often thankless assignment. We can promise though, that by the time those final credits roll, your inspiration tank will be as full as it can be and likely to stay there for some time.