Unbroken, based on the Lauren Hillenbrand biography of the same name, makes one thing abundantly clear: Louis Zamperini lived a fascinating life.
There are details in his story that are so unbelievable there were times I wondered if I wasn’t watching a Dos Equis commercial about the most interesting man in the world.
What else could you call Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell), an Olympian and World War 2 bombardier who survived a plane crash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and then a Japanese POW camp… all before the age of 30? At the very least, he’s got to make you wonder what the hell you’ve been doing with your life all this time.
Regardless, while Zamperini’s story itself is quite amazing, Unbroken often seems hurt by the transition to the big screen.
A lot of this material is the sort of stuff that would be riveting in book form, but put it in a movie and it plays like a group of tired actors wishing they could just read the prose from Hillenbrand’s book to you.
Certainly that’s most evident at the start of Unbroken, which covers Zamperini’s childhood and his development into an elite long distance runner.
These early scenes just never quite feel lived in, functioning more as a collection of personal anecdotes than an attempt to build his character.
They provide context sure, but they feel too artificial to leave much of an impression.
Eventually though, around the time Louis and the rest of his bomber crew crash land in the Pacific, the movie does take a breath and let us experience Zamperini’s story a bit more naturally.
The series of events following the crash are particularly impactful, highlighting a survival tale that probably could (and frankly has) support an entire movie in its own right.
Without giving away too much, I audibly gasped as the film progressively flashed the number of days these poor guys spent on the water.
The latter half of Unbroken takes place in a Japanese POW camp under the command of a particularly cruel Japanese corporal, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (played by Japanese singer-songwriter Miyavi).
Once again, Louie’s experience is truly extraordinary (in a heartbreaking sort of way), though I did take issue with the pacing of this particular portion of the movie.
Now certainly I would never fault any of the plot points in a true story like this. I’m a big proponent of filmmakers just telling it as it is in these things, warts and all – true stories should really be held to a different standard. But in this case, there were certain decisions that seemed to just slow down the movie unnecessarily.
You can’t show everything sometimes, and on the whole the film probably could have shaved about 20 minutes off its running time and been all the better for it.
In fact, someone involved in this film was so worried that a detail may be left out, or worse, that someone may momentarily not understand what’s going on in any given moment, that they felt the need to spell things out in intricate, and oftentimes distracting, detail.
Frankly, Unbroken could have used a gentler touch. Subtlety is everyone’s friend in these cases, especially for a film that aspires to be in the conversation come award season.
The actors for their part do a pretty great job. Jack O’Connell is always compelling, even when the script is working against him.
He and his cohorts in many cases deserve points just for the physical transformation alone, which had me harkening all the way back to Tom Hanks in Castaway.
Still, it’s hard to not see Unbroken as a so-so film elevated by the fact that its subject was a pretty amazing guy.
It may impress, but that has a lot more to do with Louis Zamperini than it does the filmmaking. It’s too bad the latter couldn’t elevate to the level of the former.
Final Score: 2.5/5