Unbroken (2014)

Director: Angelina Jolie. Starring: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Jai Courtney, Finn Wittrock, Garrett Hedlund, Alex Russell. 15 cert, 137 min.

Unbroken has had mixed reviews. It has divided the critics. I’m on the side of those who really like the film. At its core is a moral message of perseverance, resilience and the vital importance of forgiveness. It’s a true story about the resilience of the human spirit.

So why the bad reviews? I had to wonder if some in the media just don’t like Angelina Jolie! Is it because she is a powerful woman or seems to have a social conscience? I don’t know. It is incredibly unfair to her talents and what is a great story, well-told in any case.

The story is based on the incredible life of Olympian and war hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell). It owes much to Laura Hillenbrand’s exceptionally detailed and superbly written book.

I found the flashbacks to the early life of Louie fascinating. I must confess that I had never heard of him in relation to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I’d hazard a guess that the only Olympian most people would know from then is Jesse Owens. He is referenced in the film also. Jesse won four gold medals. Germany topped the medal table with 89 (33 of which were Gold). The USA came second overall.

In WWII Louie survived, with two other crashed airmen, in a raft for 47 days. He was then caught by the Japanese Navy and sent to a brutal prisoner-of-war camp. Either of these events might have finished any ordinary man!

Louis, however, is in every sense of the word a survivor. He overcomes incredible odds and always seems to have that last burst of energy when you think that it must all be used up – whether in a race or under torture. He wins not by any great cunning or skill but by outlasting his enemies. Some don’t understand why his running got such attention in the film but for me it was obvious. The same qualities of endurance and perseverance he displayed on the track are what gets him through the war. Indeed, one of the key phrases in the film is: “If I can take it, I can make it.”

Though there are different ‘sections’ of the film: the ’36 Olympics; surviving on a raft and enduring brutal imprisonment there is a unity displayed in the attitude of Louis which at base is spiritual. It never felt divided to me even though there are distinct sections. It is as if the three different stories simply express the same basic truth.

Japanese actor Miyavi (also a famous pop singer in his native Japan) plays the brutal POW camp commander known only to the men as “The Bird.” He is a cultured, effeminate thug. There is an element of hinted at and possibly suppressed homosexuality (as in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) which gives a peculiar edge and is all the more frightening for that. Miyavi operates on the level of inference and implication more than direct threats. Far more subtle. The torture he inflicts on Louie is harrowing and reminded me of scenes from the Railwayman.

Jack O’Connell is great. I kind of knew when I saw him in ‘Skins’ (as Cook) that he would be (but I would say that wouldn’t I?). Nothing he has done since has done anything but confirm my view. Jack is versatile and convincing in all that he does. Now the Americans know about him I am afraid he will be stolen away.

I do have one criticism of the film. The last part of Hillenbrand’s book is about Louie’s obsession with inflicting a bloody revenge on his tormentor. It is skipped in the film which only shows his forgiveness. Like grief, however, there is a process to forgiveness. There are stages to go through. If you don’t show the full process then when you watch Louis running with the Olympic torch in Japan and waving at onlookers you don’t fully understand what an amazing personal accomplishment that was or what a journey he has been on.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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