Louis Zamperini’s death this past July triggered an international outpouring of grief on a scale typically reserved for the death of movie stars or royals. It makes sense. In his own way, Zamperini, who was ninety-seven years old, served as both rock star and royal. An Olympic champion runner in his youth, he survived years of torture in a World War II Japanese prisoner of war camp – not to mention forty-seven days adrift in the ocean after a plane crash – and went on to become an inspirational speaker and youth worker who radiated enough love that he touched even the most ardent of cynics. It’s not surprising that a biopic has been made about his life. It’s surprising that such a biopic hasn’t been made before.
“Unbroken,” which covers Zamperini’s life from his inauspicious childhood until his 1945 release from the camps, is Angelina Jolie’s third directorial effort. It is also by far Jolie’s strongest directorial effort – at least in part because brothers Ethan and Joel Coen shaped Laura Hillenbrand’s gripping, eponymous biography into a script so sinewy that it would be hard to screw up its epic story of survival.
The film begins with a bang, literally: We’re on a B-24 sent out on a U.S. bombing raid of a Japanese-held island in the Pacific. The sense of danger confronting the crew, from those in the cockpit to the exposed gunners to the bombardier (Zamperini himself), is palpable – as is the degree to which these men depend upon each other to do their jobs. It’s a sobering, shattering glimpse that sets up the terror of the subsequent crash, as well as the tenderness of the survivors – including Zamperini and his best pal, pilot Russell “Phil” Philips (Domhnall Gleeson) – as they await rescue on an ever-more precarious life raft. (No phony male bravado here.)
We flash back to Zamperini’s days as the juvenile teen son of Italian immigrants. These scenes, though expertly rendered, feel a little too ennobled – as if Jolie fears slandering her hero. (He’s even bathed in golden light.) In her book Hillenbrand has no reservations about highlighting the young man’s rapscallion streak, recounting his truancy, his thievery, and his lifelong predilection for pranks with a level of detail that would have boosted this occasionally too-slick film by establishing just how much Zamperini developed over the course of his life.
This is not to say Jolie’s direction fails to stand on its own. It is as restrained as it is picturesque, with camerawork that is unfailingly fluid, even in the claustrophobic interiors of the plane and the camp. Her decades as an actress seem to lend Jolie a steadiness with the cast, especially with Jack O’Connell in the leading role. Last seen as a searingly bright light in the otherwise-lackluster prison drama “Starred Up,” O’Connell may be the only young actor working today who could do Zamperini justice. With his clear eyes and stoic, Roman-statue features, he bridges the gap between the athlete so all-around winning that he charmed Hitler (a potentially controversial irony that Jolie omits) and the emaciated shadow he becomes in the camps.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Zamperini’s parents a formal condolence note in 1944, he had no idea that he was still alive in a Japanese prison camp. The fact that the soldier survived another seventy years after his first official death notice always looms as the real story here. More than speed, Zamperini’s lifelong skill was his ability to beat the odds through sheer tenacity. It’s a skill that Jolie, no stranger to strong will, is uniquely suited to capture; her rendition of the American soldier’s suffering is spectacularly visceral without ever lapsing into melodrama. The thirty minutes during which the men are at sea are agonizing enough that we feel their desperation when their rescuers turn out to be Japanese soldiers who subject them to a torment outstripping all their previous travails.
Some may be troubled by these scenes of torture. As a high-profile athlete, Zamperini is a target of The Bird (singer-songwriter Miyavi), a Japanese corporal who derives a visible sexual pleasure from the pain he inflicts. Suffice it to say the violence depicted in this film pales in contrast with the latest CIA reports, though Jolie never shoves any contemporary agenda down our throats. Instead, her quiet film has the good sense to trust its eminently decent subject. In a final scene, the real Zamperini carries the torch in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan; we don’t even feel manipulated as we weep.
This review was originally published in Word and Film.