Friday, December 26, 2014

Unbroken: A bit underwhelming

Unbroken (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for war violence, brutality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.26.14

Depicting the human spirit’s strength and indomitable resolve can be a tough sell in the visual realm of the big screen, because so much of that ability is an inward, fundamentally mental challenge.

Dismayed to have come to the direct attention of sadistic concentration camp guard
Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara, right), Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell)
is subjected to a series of increasingly brutal and humiliating ordeals.
And yet we’ve been blessed, this month, by two powerful films that convey precisely that heroic struggle: the first one devoted to a quiet academic who refused to yield — Stephen Hawking, in The Theory of Everything — and now the equally authentic saga of a scrappy athlete driven by equal measures of grit and stubborn fury.

As with Eddie Redmayne’s bravura performance in Theory, director Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of author Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is fueled by equally riveting work from British actor Jack O’Connell, whose until-now obscurity on these shores is certain to vanish forever. O’Connell is the heart, soul and raw guts of this film, and he achieves the near impossible: He genuinely makes us believe that fresh-faced, Southern California-based Italian immigrant Louis Zamperini could have survived — nay, triumphed over — a series of heart-stopping ordeals that clearly would have felled, and killed, lesser men.

Hillenbrand is the meticulous biographer who in 2001 dazzled readers with her first book: Seabiscuit: An American Legend, which went on to become an equally popular 2003 film. Hillenbrand acknowledges that her research into that famed horse frequently uncovered references to another famous Californian who “could give Seabiscuit a run for his money.” That led to an eight-year “chat” with Zamperini, but only by phone; Hillenbrand didn’t want to meet him in the flesh until after her second book was published.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption hit bookstores in 2010, subsequently spending 185 weeks on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list. It was a natural for film adaptation, and therein lay the challenge: how to bring Zamperini’s amazing story to cinema.

Jolie’s smartest move was casting O’Connell in the lead role, and the young actor absolutely rewards her faith. But while Jolie clearly approached this project with both passion and sensitivity, her directorial touch is too remote: We often feel like distant observers, rather than being intimately connected with these men, and their plight.

Zamperini aside, too many of the other characters are little more than surface gloss; we’re left to imagine what makes them tick, much like we’re apparently intended to be walking encyclopedias regarding key world — and World War II — events during the decade or so that these events take place.

That’s by no means entirely Jolie’s fault. This project went through several scripters, starting with Richard LaGravenese, who was replaced by William Nicholson, who in turn was superseded by Joel and Ethan Coen. All ultimately earned screen credit, but their combined effort plays like a soufflé that was fine-tuned by too many cooks who couldn’t quite agree on the recipe.

The initial framing device is a perfect example: It’s clumsy. We jump into Zamperini’s life midway during a WWII bombing run, where as the bombardier on a B-24 Liberator he unleashes his payload on the Japanese-held island of Nauru, while his gunners do their best to ward off attacking Zero aircraft. As all appears lost, whoosh, we’re swept back to his wayward youth in the just-barely-a-beach-community of Torrance, Calif., when he was in serious danger of becoming a full-time juvenile delinquent.

Older brother Pete intervenes successfully, suggesting that Louie can channel his defiant energy into running. After some half-hearted protests — not a terribly convincing performance by C.J. Valleroy, as young Louie — the teen does indeed turn himself around, along the way demonstrating a truly unexpected talent for speed and endurance.

This life-altering prologue thus established, we’re back in the crippled B-24: a sequence with an unexpected outcome, given what we know is to come (a clever little surprise by the scripters, who deserve credit for this minor twist).

Soon enough, matters turn grim again, granting an excuse for a second flashback to Zamperini’s rising stature as a runner, which sees him qualify for the 5,000-meter race in Germany’s infamous 1936 Olympics. The outcome is a bit muddy in the telling here, but one statistic shines: Zamperini’s 56-second final lap. Clearly, he would have been a major force in the subsequent 1940 Olympics — originally scheduled for Tokyo, then shifted to Helsinki, Finland — had they not been canceled by the war.

But that’s it for flashbacks, as the film progresses. We never see Zamperini enlist, never see him earn his commission, never see him become an integral part of the B-24 crew that includes Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock).

We do get to know the latter intimately, as they wind up on a life raft with Zamperini, adrift God knows where in the Pacific. What follows is endurance enough for one lifetime, harrowingly depicted by all three actors, who seem to shrink and blister before our eyes (excellent work by makeup artists Toni G and Arjen Tuiten).

And, in time, Zamperini winds up in the first of many Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, soon coming to the attention of sadistic guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe — Japanese composer and musician Takamasa Ishihara, making his film debut under his nom de stage of Miyavi — whom the other prisoners have dubbed “The Bird,” because of his peculiar, flighty behavior.

In a sense, everything until now has been preamble, because Jolie’s obvious focus is Zamperini’s perseverance in these camps, and most particularly his abuse at the hands of The Bird. Jolie emphasizes an unsettling undercurrent of sexuality, a tone granted additional weight by Miyavi’s feline, almost female performance.

In a word, The Bird is creepy: spontaneously cruel, quick to fabricate “personal” slights that warrant punishment, and drawn to Zamperini’s inner incandescence like a brutal moth to a candle flame. What follows is a contest of wills, with The Bird absolutely determined to humiliate and break Zamperini, no matter what it takes.

But this isn’t a “polite” conflict in the manner of, say, Alec Guinness’ Lt. Col. Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa’s Col. Saito, in 1957’s Bridge on the River Kwai. Although Jolie doesn’t wallow in the clearly grim details of camp life — this film is rated a comparatively gentle PG-13 — she nonetheless conveys The Bird’s reprehensible mind-set and thoroughly deplorable behavior. Miyavi delivers, as well; the inference may be subtle, but The Bird clearly gets a sexual thrill from abusing his prisoners.

Major ick.

(As a point of reference not included in this film, despite making Douglas MacArthur’s list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan, Watanabe never was prosecuted or punished, and apparently became quite wealthy later in life. So much for justice.)

Gleeson establishes a strong presence as Phillips; I particularly like an early, quiet moment when this gentler man explains why — and when — he prays. Wittrock makes the pathetic McNamara persuasively weak-willed, mentally crushed by his fate and all but unable to shoulder the psychological burden: a truly wretched man.

Almost all of Zamperini’s camp comrades remain nameless, faceless and void of personality; the sole exceptions are Garrett Hedlund, as the calm and authoritative Fitzgerald; and Luke Treadaway, as the cynical and sarcastic Miller.

Alexander Desplat delivers a deeply moving orchestral score, complete with several character themes that weave throughout the drama. Roger Deakins’ gritty cinematography and Jon Hutman’s production design are excellent, particularly when conveying the dismal, gloomy filth of the port-based Naoetsu concentration camp in Northern Japan.

Jolie deserves considerable credit for the performances she draws from her cast, and for the passion she so clearly brought to this production. Additional poignance comes from our knowledge that Zamperini died just this past July, having seen a rough cut of the film, but unable to bask in the additional glory that its Christmas Day debut would have brought.

All that said, Jolie’s directorial style simply isn’t commanding enough, or inventive enough, to grant this story the edge-of-the-seat dramatic oomph that it so clearly demands. This is a noble effort, to be sure, but Zamperini’s saga obviously fares much better in Hillenbrand’s book.

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