'Unbroken': True story of one man's struggle to survive

Tom Long
The Detroit News

'Unbroken" is efficiently epic, a testament to one man's ability to endure unthinkable hardship, and yet it becomes something of an endurance test itself.

This is the true story of Louis Zamperini, adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's wildly popular biography. It's a tale so big that four of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood — William Nicholson ("Gladiator"), Richard LaGravenese ("The Fisher King") and brothers Joel and Ethan Coen ("Fargo," "True Grit," etc.) — grappled with carving it down to movie size.

Add director Angelina Jolie, and you've got a formidable team tackling a formidable task. What they end up with isn't as fawning a story of inspiration as might be expected; it's more a story of nature's indifference and man's capacity for cruelty. In other words, it can be grim going.

Zamperini (newcomer Jack O'Connell) was the son of Italian immigrants in California and something of a juvenile delinquent until he turned to running track. He raced his way to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and was tagged as an athlete to watch at the 1940 games.

Of course, he never made it there, and the film starts off with Zamperini high in the sky bombing Japanese targets in the Pacific. Flashbacks tell the story of his youth and everything seems fairly shiny — until his plane goes down.

Zamperini and two others — played by Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock (Jolie goes out of her way to stock this movie with fresh faces) — survive the crash and find themselves bobbing about on two rubber lifeboats, lost at sea with scant rations or resources. No one knows where they are, so there's scant hope of rescue.

Their fight to stay alive amongst sharks, storms and starvation — they float for 47 days — would have been fodder enough for most films, but here it's merely prelude. Because eventually they are found — by the Japanese. And off Zamperini goes to become a prisoner at a war camp.

He's introduced to the prison's sadistic commandant, known as The Bird (played with effective, shaky menace by the Japanese rock star Miyavi). Zamperini spends two-and-a-half years being beaten, tortured and worked to the bone in Japanese camps.

While it's inspiring that Zamperini survived all this, it's somewhat psychically exhausting watching him do so. Jolie doesn't shy away from his circumstances — she can't, really — so the film ends up being a series of stark confrontations with brutal reality.

Yes, it's heartening to know the spirit can endure. But it's also appalling to witness man's cruelty to man and the ugly turns life can take. Louis Zamperini, who died this year, was a man to be much admired. But his many trials are chilling to watch.





Rated PG-13

for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language

Running time:

137 minutes

"Unbroken" (PG-13) Director Angelina Jolie brings the popular biography of Louis Zamperini – an Olympic track star who endured being lost at sea and then being a Japanese prisoner of war -- to the screen with a film that's more psychically draining than inspiring. (137 minutes) GRADE: B