A GRITTY STORY OF HEROISM (PG-13)
We live in an era when our heroes are athletes, musicians, movie stars, or celebrities who are famous just for being famous. But, every so often someone comes along to remind us that "heroism" usually appears in the same sentence as the word sacrifice. Meet Louie Zamperini. Hero.
The story literally blasts open with a bang in 1943 aboard a B-24 Bomber engaged in air combat with the Japanese over the Pacific, where Lieutenant Louis Zamperini is a Bombardier. These scenes are interspersed with flashbacks to his troubled childhood, his discovery of running, and his trip to the 1936 Olympic Games. A subsequent rescue mission on a different aircraft goes down in the Pacific Ocean when the engines malfunction, and Zamperini's life takes yet another about-face. After miraculously surviving 47 days at sea he and another survivor are rescued by the Japanese and interned in a POW camp. It is at this camp where he meets the notorious Officer Mutsuhiro Watanabe (The Bird) who went out of his way to make sure those 47 days afloat on a raft seem almost like a private cruise.
24-year-old British thespian, Jack O’Connell manned up for the tougher-than-nails part of Zamperini, portraying him as a direct man whose entire modus operandi is to do nothing by half measure. This is a man willing to pay the price of honor even when it comes at great personal sacrifice. He has spent his life until now overcoming insurmountable odds and O’Connell gives us a substantive performance of who Zamperini the man was. Japanese musician Miyavi was stellar in the role the book called “a beautifully crafted monster. His sadistic twisted love-affair-like obsession with the former Olympic athlete was a movie villain’s dream, played to perfection by this first time actor. (It reminded me of Javier Badem’s portrayal as Silva in Skyfall). Miyavi, who became friends with O’Connell off screen admits he was so disturbed by some of the scenes that he would become violently ill and run off set to vomit.
If you've read any of my blogs in recent years you know that I am a sucker for a true story. Nothing resonates with me like real people who've triumphed over severe adversities. I read the book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand (author of Seabiscuit) about four years' ago while it was parked on the New York Times Bestseller's List and it rocked my world. All told, this was a story that was actually 57 years in the making with Universal Pictures acquiring the script in 1956 based on Zamperini’s biography “Devil at my Heels”. Over the years it was peddled in front of actors from Tony Curtis to Nicolas Cage, but lost steam each time as directors took up other projects. It took one of the world’s biggest movie stars and burgeoning director (Angelina Jolie), with a wee bit of Hollywood clout to finally bring this hero’s life to the big screen.
This was a cast of unknowns who each creditably played their parts. Casting unknown actors in a major Hollywood film is always a gamble for investors who fear audiences won’t be interested in a movie without big names. But, this time the gamble paid off with Unbroken taking 2nd place over it’s opening weekend behind the Hobbit finale’s juggernaut, (not bad). French composer Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech, Rise of the Guardians) scored the film, and the Coen brothers (True Grit) penned the screenplay.
This was a gritty, no thrills account with some of the more disturbing parts of the book omitted, (which I expected), since they would have definitely upped the movie to an “R” rating. The plot’s pacing was painfully slow at times especially on the life raft giving a sense of the utter solitude the survivors faced on the open seas. Yet it still managed to be engaging; at point’s riveting, and at some places had me wondering how someone could find the ability to go on when most of us would have quit long before? Unbroken keeps to the point, which is a part revelation/part narrative of one man’s life, and his refusal to give up in the face of unimaginable suffering. If suffering was a college course, then Zamperini would have been the Faculty Dean.
Jolie became personally enamored with Zamperini during the project and credits him with “teaching her about spirituality.” The two lived near enough in the same neighborhood for her to climb on her roof and wave at him. They became close friends over the course of the project; so much so, that when he passed away this year she and her husband (Brad Pitt), spent days crying with the family. Maybe that’s why the film had the feel of a tribute along its edges. And, it was a fitting tribute indeed, as well as a worthy sophomore effort for Jolie’s director skills. Unbroken breathed long awaited life into a legacy 56-years in the making…that reminds us all to keep hope.