Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand.
Version: 2014; directed by Angelina Jolie
Genre: WWII drama; biography
Plot Summary: [from IMDb:] “After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.”
My Review: Ever since I saw the original CBS documentary about WWII vet Louis Zamperini as a kid, I wished his story could be made into a movie. I was greatly interested when his story was written by author Laura Hillenbrand as the bestselling non-fiction book, “Unbroken” a few years ago. When I heard that the story would be filmed for the big screen, I was ecstatic but nervous. Would Angelina Jolie be able to do his story the justice it deserved? [See my book review here and interview with author on Janet Parshall’s In the Market here.]
“Unbroken” came out in theaters Christmas Day and my family and I went to see it last night. By this point I didn’t bother going with my fingers crossed because I’d heard so many good things about the relationship between Jolie and Zamperini:
As I had been reading the book, I wondered how it would be possible to translate this to film. There were so many important events in Zamperini’s life: his rebellious childhood, athletic career, military life, survival on a lifeboat, POW camps, post war life with his family… How could this be fit into a regular two hour movie? I worried.
I will try not to give away too many spoilers. But I was astounded at the handling of this true-life story. I have to say that I have never seen a movie that was so true to the book as this one. I’m sure many Unbroken fans will be pleased about this! Of course, much of the story had to be condensed to fit a limited timeframe, but many small details were left intact that could have been left out otherwise. From Louis’ class ring to the real picture of Phil’s sweetheart Cecy, these accuracies felt realistic. I felt I could appreciate my viewing experience all the more by having read the book first, but this isn’t absolutely necessary for all.
This was no shabby B-movie. Casting was great and the acting fantastic! Even though the actors may not have all looked like the photographs of the people they were playing, I think good choices were made all the way around. I worried about who they would pick to play Watanabe, but Japanese actor Takamasa Ishihara played this evil character well.
Probably one of the main things I was impressed with was the careful handling of the story’s pacing. As I said before, I had been worried but I need not have been. Louis’ prewar life is told in balanced flashbacks. The 47 days spent on the liferaft drags on, but I thought this was great from a storytelling point of view. It created an atmosphere for the viewer to get the feeling of languishing with the survivors of the plane crash. I do wish there had been more shark-fights as there had been in real life, but I suppose one can’t have everything!
I also felt the film did a great job at making you feel the pain and misery of the POWs at the Japanese camps. I’m sure it was even worse in real life and that the movie “cleaned it up,” but still the viewer gets a taste of it…
This obviously isn’t a movie for the very young. There are some very subtle sexual innuendos and a little foul language. Nothing to make me cringe terribly, and it probably wouldn’t have been in keeping with reality if there hadn’t been some of these elements. There is no sleeping around. There is backside nudity that isn’t in a sexual context, but rather in a POW context. Men are violently beaten nearly to death, but I didn’t feel it crossed the line into Rated R territory. If you’re wondering if Gaga the Duck makes an appearance, the answer is no. Thankfully we are spared that!
One of the things I worried about going into the movie was how Louis’ conversion after the war would be portrayed. At first I was a little disappointed to find that his postwar life is entirely told in footnotes at the end. However, I did not get the feeling that it was glossed over with the intent of making light of it or excluded for the sake of covering up Louis’ spiritual beliefs. In the movie, we see Louis promising to devote his life to God in the middle of a storm, and he shows interest in his friend’s belief in God, along with other allusions to faith throughout. After thinking about it, I realized that there really could be no way to film his life with Cynthia and his meeting with Billy Graham without making the pace of the story feel unbalanced. The quality of the telling of A) his lifeboat survival (w/ prewar flashbacks) and B) POW camp life would have had to have been sacrificed in order to make time for about 30 min. of his postwar life. So, I accept their decision in this. I did not feel they dishonored Louis or God with the footnotes at the end.
There is one bugaboo I will mention and that is that I was dissatisfied with the way in which they expressed Phil’s faith. Louis asks Phil if he thinks God has a plan for them in all their suffering. I can’t remember the exact quote, but Phil says something to the effect that “the only thing they can do is to live the best way they can, have a little fun along the way, and when it comes time to die an angel will say they can ask all their dumb questions now.” This didn’t feel like something Phil would have said. From the book I gathered he had a personal relationship with God that was more than a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” sort of faith. There: my complaining is over!
I hope many will go out to see and support this fine movie in the theaters. It really is worth your time! And give a round of applause at the end as the credits start to roll for Louis Zamperini (who passed away this past July).