Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie directs and produces Unbroken, an epic drama that follows the incredible life of Olympian and war hero Louis "Louie" Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) who, along with two other crewmen, survived in a raft for 47 days after a near-fatal plane crash in WWII - only to be caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's ("Seabiscuit: An American Legend") enormously popular book Unbroken brings to the big screen Zamperini's unbelievable and inspiring true story about the resilient power of the human spirit. Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie directs and produces Unbroken, an epic drama that follows the incredible life of Olympian and war hero Louis "Louie" Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) who, along with two other crewmen, survived in a raft for 47 days after a near-fatal plane crash in WWII - only to be caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
‘Unbroken’ is mainstream movie-making at its most-effective, telling the true and remarkable story of Louis Zamperini, a war hero and Olympic athlete, who survives horrific conditions with an enlightened spirit and inspiring discipline. The movie is based on a best-selling book by Laura Hildebrand, and produced and directed with reverence by Angelina Jolie. At first, I was concerned that for a movie rated PG-13, the life of Mr. Zamperini (played by British actor Jack O’Connell) would be over simplified into pure melodrama just for the sake of reaching a general audience. However, director Jolie and the credited screenwriters (which include the Coen brothers) deftly recount his Jobian trials during World War II without resorting to sensationalism and without trivializing his experience. For any studio picture, the balance between producing popular entertainment and maintaining historical integrity can range from difficult to dishonest, and to accuse 'Unbroken' as being “watered down” or “pandering” would not be an unfair criticism.
Yet I was every bit as touched by this film as one might reasonably expect. Watching it reminded me of Werner Herzog’s acclaimed film, ‘Rescue Dawn’ which also tells the tale of another prisoner of war, Dieter Dengler. (I strongly encourage those who appreciate ‘Unbroken’ to pick up this 2006 release.) 'Unbroken' held my attention from beginning to end, without provoking cynicism or instilling doubt as to the veracity of the events presented onscreen. Compared to other Hollywood biographies like ‘Midnight Express,’ ‘Born On The Fourth of July,’ and even ‘Schindler’s List,’ ‘Unbroken’ falls into a range of cinematic license where the delivery of the message becomes just as important as the portrayal of the subject. Despite those compromises, I still hold respect for this movie.
‘Unbroken’ opens with an air combat scene as Japanese forces attack a US bomber flying a mission towards nemy land. Zamperini is introduced as a second lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps and bombardier on this flight. Flashbacks to the main character’s childhood and upbringing interrupt climactic action moments and keep the audience in suspense rather cleverly for the first thirty minutes of the film. We learn that the Zamperini comes from a respectable, middle-class Italian upbringing but engages in enough boyhood mischief to warrant a good dose of discipline. His older brother coaches him to be a runner, and soon his talents take him to the 1936 Olympics in Germany, with the hope that he might participate in the next Summer games to be held in Japan.
Returning back to the “present” time, Zamperini and his crew survive the battle, but are soon are sent on another mission with more fateful results. Their plane crashes into the ocean and he and two others men find themselves stranded on a raft for 47 days, with a minimum of food and fresh water. Following some harrowing moments of hardship, Zamperini’s raft is eventually found by the Japanese Navy, and he is sent to a prison camp ruled by a particularly sadistic corporal Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (played by Japanese pop star Miyavi) . Despite some severe beatings and torture, Zamperini perseveres and survives remarkably. The movie ends with photos and up-to-date information as to the real life main character, who died shortly before the opening of his film.
Technically, I’m hard-pressed to find any significant fault with “Unbroken.’ As with Robert Zemeckis’s 'Cast Away', the film spends much of its time dealing with life-threatening environments where dialogue and outside contact are severely limited, yet the story’s pacing is never a problem. With a running time of two-hours and seventeen minutes, the film does not feel padded or artificially extended for the sake of giving it an “epic” length, and scenes of conflict and survival are well-balanced. Jack O’Connell does excellent work in what is obviously a very physically demanding role, even though he has a rather limited number of lines despite being the main character. Likewise, the supporting actors all play their roles well, especially Domhnall Gleeson as Zamperini’s good friend Russell Phillips and Alex Russell as his older brother Pete. (Kudos must also go to the casting director for finding a kid who strikingly resembles O’Connell to play the young version of Zamperini.) Computer-generated images courtesy of ILM are used to enhance practical effects and production designs instead of replacing them, and do not call attention to themselves. The opening aerial battle is among the most realistic and thrilling I’ve ever seen in any film, with flawless model (or is it CGI?) work and stunning cinematography, courtesy of Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC.
As with better films, the shortcomings in this film become apparent upon reflection, and not upon first viewing. There is a generally clinical look to some of the combat scenes which lack sufficient blood and gore to convey the nightmarish nature of such conditions. Further, character development is not as expansive as one might expect from such a grandiose film, since the film focuses mainly on survival rather than nuanced, personal evolution. The emotional and interpersonal consequences of Zamperini’s experience are not portrayed at all in the main feature (though further details are provided in the Blu-ray’s supplementary materials), which leave his full story incomplete.
Still, the film resists the Hollywood urge to indulge in any cheaply grandiose portrayals of human triumph and other similar bathos. A climactic scene of Zamperini supporting a large plank of wood definitely symbolizes a triumph of mind, spirit and body (along with some crucifixion imagery, perhaps?) but the message doesn’t descend to the level of ‘Forrest Gump”-like catchphrases, swelling music, speeches which deliver a message and so forth. I watched the movie deeply involved in the character and his story, and came away inspired. I don't think I'll get that feeling from the next 'Batman' reboot...
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘Unbroken’ is presented on a 50GB Blu-ray disc inside a standard two-disc keepcase, with the other spindle holding the DVD version. A single page insert provides information on the digital download and is printed on one side, while the other side features an advertisement for the Louis Zamperini’s biography. No other written text is offered other than on the boxcover.
‘Unbroken’ offers audiences a rich and satisfying visual experience, thanks mainly to Roger Deakins cinematography which is preserved perfectly on this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded Blu-ray. The anamorphic widescreen picture has an aspect ratio of 2.40:1 and shows off details superbly and colors richly. If there are any defects or anomalies in the video transfer, I could not detect them despite close observation.
Modern digital cinematography has obviously evolved to a point where most images have a clean, grain-free appearance and ‘Unbroken’ is no exception. However, this result does not detract from the “period” look of the film which is kept intact even without the lack of visual “grit.” Multiple layers of green dominate the inside of a bomber where military uniforms and metal parts are of distinct shades. Black levels are similarly impressive and most noticeable during scenes in a coal mine where dirt, grime and carbon avoid blending into one dark mess. A scene inside a church is bathed in yellows and golds that recalls a bright summer morning illuminating dark interiors. I wish more films had this level of quality.
Regrettably, I was unable to take advantage of the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, having neither the right processor needed to perform the proper decoding, nor the four extra ceiling speakers recommended to present the overhead channels correctly. (Don’t even get me started on the highly questionable idea of using a module speaker to “bounce” the sound from the ceiling!) Instead, my 7.1 set-up was called upon to reproduce this very challenging soundtrack, but I was more than pleased with the results. The opening aerial battle is filled with some of the tightest and most impressive low-end effects I’ve ever heard, with distinctive bass reproduction between machine gun fire and thundering explosives. One particular overhead flight by an American bomber was so aurally impressive that it warranted a repeat of that brief scene. If pop CDs and records exhibited this kind of dynamic range, people would throw away their ear buds!
Quieter moments in the film involving rain drops immerse the viewer with more subtle surround effects in all four rear speakers. Alexandre Desplat’s music score exhibits good channel separation with a strong stereo presence, but is not quite as dynamic as one might hear on a commercial recording, which is usually the case with most film music. Dialogue can be heard distinctively and intelligibly, and even noisy crowd scenes (such as a stadium filled Olympic sporting event) don’t interfere with clarity. ‘Unbroken’ doesn’t bombard audiences with a wall of noise or a cacophony of Foley effects; instead, it keeps the viewer involved in the movie with a minimum of artificial distractions.
Deleted Scenes (15:44 HD): Ten different scenes of varying length make up this section, with descriptive titles such as ‘Dad Comes Home,’ ‘Victory Kiss,’ ‘Louie Taken to Barracks after Beating’ pretty much revealing their contents. There is a “Play All” option to view each consecutively, or individually. Though entertaining when viewed collectively, none of the footage adds significantly to either the characters or to the plot. A segment called ‘Light and Darkness’ involves young Zamperini and his brother observing a zeppelin flying through the night does provide a little more background information, but is superfluous in the overall context.
Inside Unbroken (27:23 HD): This featurette is divided into three sections:
--- Fifty Years In the Making (5:44) discusses the development of the film, beginning with how Zamperini’s original autobiography was optioned by Universal Studios in 1956 (and stuck in development hell for nearly fifty years) and the popularity of Laura Hildebrand’s biography which led to Angelina Jolie’s involvement. Overall it’s an excellent summary of what it took to get ‘Unbroken’ from page to screen. (However the ending of ‘Fifty Years in the Making’ ends with a promotional still of ‘Spartacus,’ which is briefly mentioned in this clip, but the home video sales pitch is as tacky as it gets.)
--- The Flight of a Storyteller: Director Angelina Jolie (11:45) provides a general voiceover and interview with the esteemed actress, and focuses on the making of the movie. She comes off as genuinely sincere and humble, as the movie is obviously a labor of love. This segment generally avoids most of the “behind the scene” clichés typically seen in such promos, such as fulsome praise for crew and endless flattery towards the cast. My only caveats are that special effects and productions designs are addressed too briefly in this less than twelve minute segment, and I would have appreciated some discussion on the film’s excellent score by composer Alexandre DeSplat.
--- The Hardiest Generation (10:13 HD) is a follow-up to several of the real-life characters who experienced the prison camps, and a general tribute of the veterans of World War II. It is well-worth watching.
Prison Camp Theatre: Cinderella (6:29 HD): This featurette presents a curious look into one of the more bizarre scenes in the film, in which the prisoners are forced to dress up and provide theatrical entertainment to the camp. This portrayal is based on true events, but the time devoted to this topic seems to be excessive.
Cast and Crew Concert Featuring Miyavi (7:42 HD ): Actor Takamasa Ishihara, also known as Miyavi and out of character and costume as “The Bird,” shows that he has more talents than just wielding a bamboo stick. He provides live entertainment during a break in filming and the crowd goes wild. Fans of Asian pop music may get more out of this segment than I did, though there’s no doubt his guitar playing is pretty impressive.
Louis’ [sic] Path to Forgiveness (6:43 HD): This segment explores what is only briefly mentioned at the end of the film in captions, which is how Zamperini became more deeply religious following his combat with post-traumatic stress and alcohol dependency. (Incidentally, there should be an “s” after the apostrophe in that title.)
The Real Louis Zamperini (29:47 HD): Billed on the Blu-ray packaging as an “additional feature,” this documentary offers further details into Mr. Zamperini’s life outside of his those military events portrayed on film.
All the supplements are presented in stereo sound only.
I watched ‘Unbroken’ only vaguely familiar with Louis Zamperini and his story, and without the benefit of any reviews or information as to the overall box office response during its theatrical run. My wife did happen to read the book years ago, and was obviously far more familiar with the nature and extent of events portrayed in the film. As we watched the movie, her unsolicited commentary comparing film to book made me wish that the 'Unbroken' included more information, as a few key events would have dramatically rounded out the film. (For example, it is my understanding that the Japanese ship which rescued Zamperini and his men from sea had a few crew members who were sympathetic and caring even though they were turned over as prisoners of war.) Yet whatever faults I find in this this film are minor compared to the compelling storytelling and the genuine emotional response which it earns. I highly recommend 'Unbroken."