It’s a life span that must be told to the audience with the same strength and determination as the man whose true story it reveals. A strong narrative encompassing the confidence, resiliency and steadfastness found in this film’s main character and title. Only an unflinching and straightforward body of work could properly honor a young troublemaker’s dramatic rise to U.S. Olympian and, later, to American military hero. Based on the best-selling non-fiction novel by Laura Hillenbrand of the same name, “Unbroken” casts such an overwhelming shadow from a remarkable man’s life, almost any director would have found the story daunting to make for the big screen. Particularly one sitting in the director’s chair for only her second time ever–Angelina Jolie.
To start the film, director Jolie wisely takes a page straight out of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” playbook, throwing moviegoers immediately into the opening scene of hostile fire from enemy forces in World War II. From here, we learn that this movie’s an impressive story about an uncommon man named Louis Zamperini. As a young boy who grew up in Southern California, we find Zamperini a bombardier aboard a U.S. Army Air Forces’ B-24 Liberator dropping bombs on Japanese targets in the Pacific. The strong-willed Zamperini falls back on his exceptional athleticism and mental fortitude—instilled during his old high school track days—throughout the movie as he fights for his life.
“Unbroken” is a staggering masterpiece and watermark film for Jolie. Although her track record as a director is short, she’s already achieved success and a Golden Globe nomination for her first film, 2011’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey” in the Best Foreign Language Film (USA) category. To Jolie’s credit, for “Unbroken” she threw out the original screenplay and brought in two of the best screenwriters in the business—the Academy Award-winning Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. While impossible to capture every event in Hillenbrand’s book on film, Jolie and her team of writers do a fantastic job of covering the influences in Zamperini’s life and the importance he placed in his faith and the human spirit when difficult times confronted him.
Perhaps the most significant achievement in “Unbroken” is the feeling of despair and hopelessness conveyed upon viewers of Zamperini’s dire circumstances. For a film with a running time of only 2 hours and 17 minutes, it feels like twice that length to audiences absorbed in the continual challenges faced on-screen by the weary characters. The film, however, does not drag on endlessly or beg for scenes to be cut out. Instead, Jolie squarely places the mental and physical burdens carried by Zamperini into moviegoers’ minds–unobscured and repeated for needed emphasis on years passed by. Each character assuming the thousand-yard stare, as evidenced by the disturbing footage of human suffering from malnutrition and torture.
This film’s striking cinematography also gives credence to the threats and risks faced by our nation’s Greatest Generation during World War II. Credit 10-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins for the realism exhibited in the movie. From the shark infested waters of the Pacific Ocean, the crippled B-24 bomber & aircrew taking numerous bullet holes, or the unimaginably harsh conditions of the Japanese POW encampment, “Unbroken” unapologetically showcases Zamperini’s real-life hardships without pulling any punches.
Angelina Jolie has passed her watershed film moment moving from one end of the movie camera to the other. As director of “Unbroken” she stayed true to Laura Hillenbrand’s epic novel and her bold, intense storytelling. But even more importantly, Angelina Jolie honored a son, a brother, an Olympic athlete and true American hero named Louis “Louie” Zamperini. His unfathomable, real-life survival during World War II are brilliantly presented and told by Jolie in this landmark military movie. “Unbroken” is a phenomenal tribute to one man’s endurance over a lifetime, achieved by his confidence, resiliency, steadfastness and faith. And a film as shocking as it is inspiring.
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