In “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie and featuring newcomer Jack O’Connell as 1936 Olympic long-distance runner Louis Zamperini, we have the perfect vehicle for a tear-jerker that mixes patriotism with melodrama and comes apart at every manipulative seam. Jolie, however, resists almost every opportunity to do so. This comes across as solid story-telling on par with Ron Howard, although not quite as sharply honed as Clint Eastwood.
In fact, Jolie appears to have taken a page from director Howard who also has a weakness for almost mushy tales, but knows how to let a story tell itself without much off-screen interference. This is what separates the wheat from the chaff or the solid story-telling from saccharine sentiment.
As New York Times writer Rick Bragg said, if it’s a poor story, over write as much as you like, but if it’s a good story just let the story tell itself. Jolie recognizes this story needs no help from her and seems to stay out of its way as much as she can with a few excusable indiscretions. At one point, as the the Olympic torch is being carried into the stadium, Zamperini glances over to a Japanese athlete and they exchange knowing glances. Of course, timing aside, something like this may have even happened, because Zamperini was expecting to mature as a runner and to have a better shot at a medal in the Tokyo Olympics four years later, which were canceled when the war broke out. But for the moment, it’s a moment of foreseeable foreshadowing, even if it looks a little trite.
This is, after all, the powerful tale of Torrance, California youth Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants who overcame his scrappy childhood to become an Olympic runner, finishing eighth in the 5,000-meter race in Berlin in the last Olympics staged before the outbreak of World War II.
Zamperini’s childhood was a tough one. With poor parents who spoke no English, he his early years were marked by repeated fights with his neighborhood bullies until Zamperini turned his attention to cross country running, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Pete.
This, of course, sets up another tar pit for gooey emotions, but the script does not over-indulge. Yes, there is the pat parting scene at the train station where Pete sees his younger brother off for his Olympic adventure, telling him to have fun, but to remember “a lifetime of glory is worth a little pain,” which comes from the Laura Hillenbrand book that inspired this film.
Yes, it’s a little corny, but what’s he going to say? Don’t forget to tie your shoes? C’mon; this is Tinsel Town we’re talking here. Glorious aspirations are what they do.
That pain that Pete foreshadows is what makes up most of this film. In an old bomber flying a rescue mission over the Pacific, Zamperini and his crew members crash into the ocean Zamperini and two other survivors cast adrift for 47 days in rubber lifeboats – except at 33 days one of them dies. The two others, Zamperini and a pilot named Phil, are then picked up by the Japanese Navy near the Marshall Islands. Later, they are transferred to a prisoner of war camp near Tokyo, where Zamperini, by dint of of his reputation as an Olympic athlete became the pet target for abuse of prison warden Mutsuhiro “Bird” Wantabe, who was named after the war as one of the 40 most wanted Japanese war criminals by the United States.
A man of faith, who later endured severe post traumatic stress syndrome and became a spokesman for Christian missions, Zamperini went back to Japan to personally forgive his tormentors. While other guards spoke with him, Wantabe, who went into hiding after the war, refused to meet with him.
By now you can see, this is a buyer beware type of movie, too obvious to bother seeing and to compelling not to. This is heartbreak and heroics in massive doses. But the casting is terrific, the acting is stoic and the extra touches are thankfully spare. O’Connell in his first major role ever is a perfect choice and his breakout role can’t be an accident. Put a stock Hollywood stalwart in this role and you get too many expectations. Here, Jolie uses O’Connell because he is young, fresh and strong. It turns out to be a terrific choice.
O’Connell has a young look carved with dignity, so that he easily fits the role of a soldier who can quietly inspire others. Meanwhile, singer-songwriter and performer Miyavi (the stage name for Takamasa Ishihara) is also perfectly cast as the prison warden, whose cruelty is apparently derived from feeling he is a disappointment to his father.
Movies like this collapse at the merest teasing moment of manipulation and “Unbroken” simply steers clear of all that. This comes across as touching and genuine, rather than manipulative and phony.
It helps that O’Connell and Miyavi are both riveting. The script is well-honed, the directorship is clean and the supporting cast is solid. This is a solid, four-star effort all around.