Louis Zamperini's story of survival and faith finally gets its big screen debut.
Posted in , Dec 11, 2014
It’s hard to believe Unbroken, the true story of Olympic athlete and WWII hero Louis Zamperini, is only the second directorial effort from Angelina Jolie. The responsibility of bringing to life Zamperini’s tale of endurance and redemption is one even directors experienced in the kind of big-budget cinematic filmmaking required for stories like this would balk at. The film is a marathon of torture, depravation and despair. Yet, for all of the necessary violence and seemingly insurmountable odds the main characters face, the themes of hope and faith overcome. Moviegoers will find it difficult to leave the theater not feeling changed from how they first entered.
Unbroken is a film 57 years in the making. The true story of Zamperini, a tough kid from Torrance, California, whose bouts of drinking and brawling got him into trouble with the law, has been brought to life plenty of times on the page. Most notably was in 2011, when author Laura Hillenbrand debuted her meticulously crafted book titled "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption." But bringing the story to the big screen was a more daunting challenge and required someone with a passion for the story and a love for its leading man.
Jolie has both, as do her actors, who dropped staggering amounts of weight and suffered through harsh conditions in order to do justice to the men they played. “We all felt that sense of responsibility and also that we were in service of a story that was bigger than any of us,” said Finn Wittrock, who plays Mac in the film .
Indeed Zamperini’s story is bigger than just one film. The early hardships of his life, his training for the Olympics, his time as a bombardier during the war, the 47 days he was stranded at sea with two of his crewman after their plane crashed in the Pacific, the two years he spent as a POW and his later years as a man of faith arguably all deserve to be featured on their own. That might be why, at times, Jolie’s narrative seems overwhelming and why one of the biggest events in Zamperini’s life, the moment he dedicated his life to God, is left as an afterword in the closing credits.
Jolie explained this decision, detailing how Zamperini wanted his story to appeal to a wider audience. “What we did was we looked at the themes of his life, so for example faith. Faith is so important to him and instead of it being a specific chapter, faith is represented from the beginning and all through the film,” Jolie said. “We made it universal. [Louis] said this is about reaching everyone, this should speak to everyone and I think, in any opportunity, if you’re looking for symbolism and miracles in the film, you will see them.”
One of the many things the movie gets right is its casting. Brit Jack O’Connell is tasked with playing Louis, and the physicality he brings to the role is powerful. From donning spiked running shoes and stretching his legs on the track to dropping 30 lbs to portray Louis’ time at sea, standing still for hours in freezing conditions and being beaten, humiliated and starved in the camps, O’Connell makes you forget you’re watching the dramatization of another man’s life and instead draws your sympathy and support for the character he’s playing on screen.
And if O’Connell is the man you’re rooting for by the end of the movie, Japanese actor Miyavi is the guy you’ll hate. As hard as it is to believe this is only the second movie Jolie’s helmed, it’s even more staggering to think the man who so convincingly played “The Bird” – the commanding officer known for his brutality, who tortured Louis for years in the POW camps – has never acted before this role. Miyavi, for all his unassuming, quiet demeanor off-camera, is a force to be reckoned with on the screen. Conflicted and tortured in his own right, “The Bird” sadistically targets Zamperini in order to make an example of the young Olympian, but it’s a testament to Miyavi’s abilities as an actor that the audience still finds this complicated character at times enthralling.
Overall Unbroken accomplishes it goal. You’re left feeling inspired after witnessing Zamperini’s struggles and ultimate victories against his captors. A sort of humbled determination can be felt emanating from the screen, and in each actor you’ll find an earnest commitment to do right by the men they’re playing. A higher purpose, as Wittrock said, is what the cast felt when filming, a higher purpose is what the real Zamperini was called on for his life, and a higher purpose is what Unbroken ultimately serves a whole.
Unbroken premieres in theaters Dec. 25.