Academy Award® winner Angelina Jolie directs and produces Unbroken, an epic drama that follows the incredible life of Olympian and war hero Louis "Louie" Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) who, along with two other crewmen, survived in a raft for 47 days after a near-fatal plane crash in WWII-only to be caught by the Japanese Navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. (from Grace Hill Media)
If you watch (and buy into) ads and marketing long enough, you'll surely discover just how misleading it can be. Trailers and TV ads are notorious for selling a different kind of film than you end up watching if you decide to, and Angelina Jolie's sophomore effort in the director's chair, Unbroken, is the latest film to fall prey to this. Unbroken is based on the true story of Olympic runner Louis "Louie" Zamperini, who suffered intense brutality as a POW during WWII. The film is based on a book (which this reviewer has not read) and the story is one of strength, faith, and forgiveness. However, the film doesn't quite capture all of those elements as well as it probably could have.
I bring up marketing because what Unbroken is being sold as this triumphant, feel-good, underdog rises kind of story. While there are pieces of the film that fit that description, nearly every hint of the Olympic part of Louie's story is told in flashbacks within the first quarter of the film, while the bulk of it focuses on the intense and brutal hardships that Zamperini had to endure adrift at sea for over 40 days and then as a prisoner of war under the thumb of the Japanese. As such, the audience is bombarded with scene after scene of torture, beatings, mistreatment and humiliation that Louie and his fellow POW's had to endure. As one person leaving the same theater as we did noted, it almost feels like watching The Passion of the Christ all over again. There's a message to embrace here, but it's an exhausting film emotionally--and a difficult one to watch.
I kept noting while watching Unbroken, however, just how beautifully shot the film was, and artfully presented. Jolie crafted an expertly made film here, even if it falters at times. From the opening scene, with Louie and other soldiers manning a bomber during an airstrike, I found myself captivated. However, after another flight, they crash and are lost at sea... for well over a month. Some of the men that survived the initial crash end up making it through the ridiculously long time lost at sea, but only to find themselves being "rescued" by the Japanese Navy. Out of the frying pan and into the fire would be a masterpiece of understatement. So as these men are going from one horribly bad day and experience to another, so is the audience. And we have the hard task of watching the central character literally get beaten time and time again--whether it's a rod to the face or head, or being punched repeatedly in the face by a dozens of guys for hours. Unbroken is not a film for the faint of heart.
I feel the need to discuss the film's very end to truly present my complete thoughts on the film to you. It's not a grand spoiler, but it does reveal how it all ends. So if you don't want to know, kindly skip this paragraph. After we sit through two-plus hours of Louie suffering greatly, the film concludes after the war is over and he returns home. Jolie then gives us an epilogue of text over the screen that tells what happened next for Louie and for a few other main characters. In this, she reveals that Louie eventually made good on a promise to serve God by going back to Japan to seek out those who tortured him and extend them forgiveness. It's something so powerful, it feels criminal that it wasn't made part of the film in visual form. The long sequences of abuse Louie endured didn't need to be quite so extensive. It ended up feeling far too excessive and almost gratuitous--and almost in the same way someone like Michael Bay overdoes it with action scenes. After a while, it just felt like all Unbroken had to offer was a test to see how much the audience could endure of seeing an Italian-American get abused and beaten-down -- literally! To show us Louie extending the hand of forgiveness to these people years later would have been a truly impactful gesture and thing to witness. When one stops to realize all that we were shown instead, it's difficult not to feel a bit cheated.
The content is, as you can imagine, pretty substantially brutal. There's some blood during the war scenes in the beginning, but nothing too graphic. When they're lost at sea, we see them cutting open a seagull with some blood (I got queasy), cutting open a shark and removing organs (also pretty gross) and gnawing on raw fish right out of the water. Once they become prisoners, we see two men forced to take their clothes off and we see their bare butts a couple times, and then front views of them covering their genitals (with some hair visible). Later, there's several instances where Louie is hit in the head and we see blood on his face and head. Another scene has him being punched by dozens of men and we see, in a dimly lit scene, that his face is covered in blood. We also briefly see a soldier missing two fingernails which presumably had been pulled off during an interrogation. For profanity, there isn't much, just a couple uses of mild language, a few uses of the "S" word, and one of "g*dd*mn," but one scene where Louie screams in frustration may have been the "F" word, but it wasn't clear enough to say for sure.
Like Rescue Dawn before it, Unbroken is a film largely about soldiers in captivity and their mistreatment, but it's also about the endurance of the human spirit. While it's true that Louie was found to be virtually "unbreakable," it's still tough to watch fellow souls being mistreated, beaten, and abused. To make matters worse, it was evident that these men had lost nearly all hope (if not all hope) by the film's climax, and that alone makes it even more difficult to endure. While we know, as viewers, that there is an eventual end for the torment, it's heartbreaking to witness a true story unfolding about men in wicked conditions who cannot see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. There are certainly aspects of inspiration to be found here, and we never stop rooting for Louie and his comrades, but Jolie seems to have missed a wonderful opportunity to trade some of the unrelenting torture screen time for the spiritual redemption and forgiveness part of the story that only gets a mention in passing instead.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 12/14/14)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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