“If I take it, I can make it.” – Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell)
As young Louis Zamperini fidgets in the pew, the priest tells the congregation that God made two forms of light, split between day and night.
One of the few lighthearted scenes of Unbroken is equally the most poignant — little does kid Louie realize just how much his life would epitomize the idea of split forms of light, both of which would contribute to his survival in some of the most dire situations man has ever been forced to endure.
Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) starts off his life as a delinquent, finally finding a place on the running track in Torrence, California, and moving on to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. After that, he becomes a bombardier in the Pacific Theatre of WWII, crashing into the ocean on one run and surviving with two others, Phil (Domnhall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Witrock), until the Japanese save him only to test his strength in not one but two POW camps.
Unbroken is the story of mankind’s ability to persevere under the worst conditions — the cruelty of his own species. Unfortunately, it leaves out some of the most important and poignant parts of Zamperini’s story, reducing the most awe-inspiring aspects of the man’s life to a title card placed right before the credits. Perhaps this was at the real Zamperini’s request; or maybe it was a focus of the screenwriters (including Joel and Ethan Cohen) and director Angelina Jolie. If the latter is the case, they missed some of the best parts of the story in favor of almost exploiting the POW experience for an emotional film that leaves audiences in awe of Louie’s stamina rather than his almost supernatural ability to forgive — something readers of Laura Hildenbrand’s book were able to take away, but not viewers of the film.
Instead, viewers of Jolie’s film will be mesmerized by Louie’s strength in both the Olympic and war arenas. Cruelty takes its form in not just the elements Louie and company face while stranded at sea but also the you-versus-me mentality of mankind during the races he runs and once he lands in the hands of camp leader “Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishahara). Fortunately, Louie is able to face it. Jolie’s strength in directing (and O’Connell’s in acting) lies in the ability to capture the story in Louie’s eyes rather than his words and facial expressions. The film itself is overly wordy at points and silently torturous in others, leaving room for plenty of Jolie’s direction to tell the story. And that it does, using lighting and angles to full affect, especially in scenes at the POW camp and while Zamperini is lost at sea.
Unbroken is the 12 Years a Slave of 2014, but not because of its award magnetism. It’s hard to watch, hope-dashing and -building at the same time and one of the more ambitious films of the year. Jolie has far to go before she has mastered the art entirely, but the film’s shortcomings aren’t because of her direction — they have everything to do with omission and none to do with the technical or performance aspects of the film. If anything’s to blame, it’s what the film omits — luckily, Louie’s story is so spectacular that even the small part shown is enough to leave audiences awe-struck by one man’s physical, spiritual and emotional strength.