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Stars: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, John Magaro, Luke Treadway, Alex Russell, John D'Leo, Vincenzo Amato, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy
Director: Angelina Jolie
Screenwriters Joel And Ethan Coen (with Richard LaGravanese and William Nicholson) have adapted Laura Hillebrand’s best-selling biography for the screen. The result is a tough, solid but frequently sadistic story that holds the attention because it is largely true – although in the end credits we are told some characters have been ‘amalgamated’ or otherwise created - to make for a more profitable picture.
Fortuitously (remember the abomination that was The Ladykillers?) the brothers Coen didn’t direct Unbroken. Although it may well pain producer Scott Rudin, whose ridiculous comment - "the insanity and rampaging spoiled ego of this woman” (leaked during the unfortunate hacking of the emails of Sony studios) referred to Angelina Jolie – the fact is that Jolie’s direction of Unbroken makes for solid, if sometimes stolid, storytelling and delivers a powerful portrait of the hell suffered by American prisoners of war incarcerated by the Japanese during WW2.
Louis Zamperini (magnificently played by Jack O’Connell) compensates for being bullied as a boy in Torrance, California because his Italian ancestry by behaving badly (“Everybody in town wants you put away” an unsympathetic local policemen tells him). Then we see him being encouraged by his older brother to behave and into becoming an athlete, (officially the fastest High School runner in America) and competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
His teenage redemption is seen in flashback between a vividly created airborne sequence in an American WW2 bomber under aerial attack in the South Pacific and a hair-raising crash landing, followed by his subsequent 47 days spent adrift in the ocean and fighting for survival in two rubber rafts with fellow crew members Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock before being rescued (“I have good news and bad news”, Connell tells Gleeson) by Japanese sailors, followed by them being sent to the living hell that is the prison camp commanded by scarily youthful-looking officer Miyavi.
What follows is truly chilling as O’Connell and his fellow prisoners are put through living hell.
Miyavi informs them, “You are enemies of Japan. You will be treated accordingly”. In his world, ‘accordingly ‘ simply means unbridled sadism, which Jolie never flinches from depicting all too credibly.
Jolie’s grimly credible depiction of the seemingly unending nightmare suffered by O’Connell and his fellow prisoners is impressively directed and acted but hardly entertainment in the commonly accepted sense of the word.
However the appalling sufferings of Zamperini and his fellow prisoners is a real-life story that needed to be told again, this time without the added cinematic dramatics of, say, Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai and other more dramatically gaudy movies on a similar theme.
Like most movies, Unbroken is not perfect.
I felt that the central sequence of the three airmen drifting in the Pacific went on rather too long after Jolie had established their appalling situation and, strangely, after spending 47 days at sea (presumably without access to razors), the trio’s beards seemed far too short by the time the Japanese seamen rescued them.
Strangely, too, there was no footage of the atomic bombs that ended WW2 for the Japanese.
That said, Unbroken is an impressive piece of work and, after her 2011 war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, Jolie emerges as a genuine storytelling talent behind the camera.
(And should you hear someone sobbing in the cinema, perhaps it’s simply Mr Rudin regretting his email(s)).
USA 2014. UK Distributor: Universal. Colour.
137 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.
Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 3, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.
Review date: 24 Dec 2014