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Unbroken endurance, courage and faith  

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Louis Zamperini’s memoirs come to life in movie “Unbroken”

By David Josselyn

I saw a teaser featuring Angelina Jolie talking about the courage of Olympian runner Louis Zamperini for the film Unbroken. The teaser showed scenes from the film interspersed with Jolie talking about Zamperini’s experience in the war and how he overcame great adversity in a way few people could. It was obvious Jolie had a lot of respect and admiration for the man and I remember wondering if Jolie was related to Zamperini. Knowing nothing about the movie, or the book of the same title by Laura Hillenbrand, I thought this was a documentary Jolie put together, or at least sponsored, and had I little interest in viewing it. A week later, I saw a trailer for the movie without Angelina espousing her thoughts and realized this was not a documentary, but rather a movie based on Zamperini’s life during World War II. So what’s the point of me telling you this? This is supposed to be a movie review, after all. There are two reasons; the first being I would not want anyone assuming this is a documentary as I did and therefore, like so many Americans, dismiss seeing it in favor of the latest fantasy, action, comedy, or romance movie. The second reason I will address a little bit later.

A little history

Author Laura Hillenbrand won the lottery of fame with her first book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, about a depression-era racehorse. As Hillenbrand researched for this book, she kept coming across historical references to Louis Zamperini, a 1930’s track star who endured an amazing odyssey in World War II. About twelve years ago, Hillenbrand met the famed Zamperini and was blown away by his story and began her own research in the man who refused to be broken. In 2010, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption was published and later caught the interest of Angelina Jolie. Thus, the movie was born.

The Story

Louis Zamperini grew up in a period where racism was common and being from an Italian immigrant family, felt the sting of being different from other children in his community. Zamperini learned quickly to fight, to smoke, and to steal in order to be left alone or thought of as someone not to mess with and was headed for a future in the slammer. Fortunately, his big brother, Pete, gave him something else to do to channel his anger; run. Louis had plenty of experience running from the law so began training for the track team and soon became the fastest boy in his school. This gave him a future and a hope catapulting him to the 1936 Olympic Games competing alongside Jesse Owens in Berlin, Germany. Although Zamperini did not bring home a medal, (he finished eighth in the 5,000 meter run) he made history running the final lap, a quarter mile, in under 60 seconds; at the time unheard of. Zamperini planned to get a medal in the 1940 Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Tokyo. Japan had other ideas and invaded China, causing the 1940 Olympic Games to be cancelled. Instead, Zamperini joined the Air Force after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and served his country as a B-24 bombardier. (Side Note – actor Jimmy Stewart also flew a B-24 during World War II.) During a search and rescue mission, the plane Zamperini was on lost its left outboard engine. Shortly after, while trying to adjust, the left inboard engine failed and the plane crashed. Zamperini survived with two others in a life raft. The men, one badly injured, used albatross meat as bait to lure fish (and sharks) for food and collected rain water to quench their thirst. Although one man died from his injuries, Louis and Phil survived 47 days when they were at last rescued…but it was by the Japanese. Taken as prisoners of war, the Japanese tried to use the bond between Louis and Phil against them to reveal secrets about U.S. strategies and troop locations. Neither man gave up information, so they were split apart and Louis was taken to an internment camp. Louis was recognized as the Olympic runner by the Japanese commander and became the brunt of the commander’s frustration, amusement and anger. Zamperini’s refusal to be broken helped him to survive until a truce was called and the war ended. Some years later, Louis Zamperini realized his dream to run again in the Olympics, carrying the Olympic Torch in 1998; in Tokyo, running past his old prison camp at Naoetsu. At 97 years old, Louis Zamperini died on July 2, 2014.

The Good and the Bad

Angelina Jolie did a marvelous job directing the movie. Under Jolie’s direction, the audience was able to feel what it might be like to serve in a B-24 bombardier, to experience the hunger and fatalism of drifting at sea knowing no rescue party is coming, to feel the pain, anguish and torture of a Japanese prison camp, and to know the feeling of overwhelming forgiveness seeing Zamperini run in the 1998 Olympics. The movie brought to life Zamperini’s experiences without crossing the boundary into torture porn; keeping the story available to a wider audience. Had Jolie chosen to portray Zamperini’s struggles with any more reality, the move would have had a higher MPAA rating. As it is, I have no complaints whatsoever about Jolie’s direction and was very pleased with the final product. Jolie chose to use lesser known or unknown actors for the film. Louis Zamperini was played by Jack O’Connell who is known mainly for television roles on Skins and the Runaway, but some may remember him from 300: Rise of an Empire. Zamperini’s surviving friend, Phil, was played by Domhnall Gleeson, a lesser known Weasley from the Harry Potter series and will play a part in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The crewman in the raft who did not make it was played by Garrett Hedlund who held the main role in Tron: Legacy and will reprise that role in the recently announced sequel. The prison commander, Watanabe, was played by Takamasa Ishihara in his first acting role. Ishahara is better known as a composer for Japanese television series and video games.

The score for the movie was composed by Alexandre Desplat; and unfortunately, this is where the bad comes in to play. Desplat has composed fantastic movie scores for The Imitation Game, Argo, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The music in these movies perfectly accentuates the feeling, the action, and the nuance of every scene making the movies better than they would be otherwise. In Unbroken, Desplat treats the score as if this was a documentary and thus I come to the second reason I rambled about documentaries at the beginning. Documentaries are mostly treated unfairly by the composer, if they use a composer at all. Most are working on a shoestring budget and cannot afford a composer, so use computer generated music interspersed with too much silence. (This is why I will always prefer not to watch a documentary, although some, like King of Kong, are really good.) In Unbroken, I kept waiting for the music to swell with the emotions or tensions of a scene, but it utterly fell flat. The uplifting climax of the movie showing Zamperini lifting a railroad tie in defiance of the prison commander should have had music that preached to the heavens. Desplat evidently did not feel the same emotions or perhaps did not care. Maybe Jolie did not pay him enough to care – who knows? In any case, don’t expect any Oscar nominations for the score from this film. The score is as tragic as the ugly side of World War II.

An Unbroken Rating

The movie is rated PG-13 for violence and brief language. Unlike many of today’s PG-13 movies, this one is not trying to move the line to get away with as much as possible without a rating of R. Instead, it uses language and violence as a part of the story, not to tell the story. The subject matter will be intense for younger children, but I can see this being okay for kids as young as sixth grade. Parents use your best judgment. This film gets knocked down from a perfect rating for the score. I rate this film four and a half out of five hungry sharks.

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