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Monday, February 9, 2015

Movie Review - Unbroken



Angelina Jolie directs the highly-anticipated Unbroken, a gripping bio-flick based on the life of Louis Zamperini who went from being an Olympic athlete to surviving a Japanese POW camp during WWII. The movie is beautifully done, although a little slow in parts, with great cinematography, special effects, and a moving score. The viewer is also introduced to a slew of young acting talent, most notably Domhnall Gleeson (Phil) and Garret Hedlund (Fitzgerald), both of whom I predict will become more visible in the coming years.

While lauded as a story of faith, Unbroken is more a tale of perseverance amongst the greatest of obstacles. Even though there were some nice Christian elements peppered throughout, there was no real focus on the power of God and faith in Jesus to overcome tremendous odds.  In my opinion, it was a missed opportunity that would have made the story stronger, taking it from the realm of “good” to “spectacular.” However, considering that the script was written by the Cohen brothers (Ethan and Joel) and that it was directed by Jolie, Unbroken can be considered a victory for the faith-based viewer. There was no sex, gratuitous violence, or nudity and no blasphemous language, despite being set during wartime. As many of us know, it is very unusual for Hollywood to deliver a movie of this genre and caliber with a PG13 rating.

The movie starts out with Louis (played by Jack O’Connell sporting jet black hair) being part of a US military bomber squad during WWII fighting the war with Japan. Fun-loving, handsome, and gregarious, Louis (pronounced “Louie”) is the glue that holds the men together when the enemy makes a surprise attack, riddling their plane with bullet holes. During great chaos and confusion, he has no fear but remains cool and level-headed, finding ways to keep the plane in the air so that he and his comrades can return safely to base without crashing into the Pacific Ocean. But as the tension increases in this action-packed scene opener, we discover that our brave, hopeful hero wasn’t always the model of perfection.

Through carefully placed flashbacks, we learn that Louis actually grew up fighting, stealing, running from the cops, and drinking moonshine whiskey, despite his strong Italian-Catholic background. His immigrant parents are incensed that their efforts to be successful and accepted in a hostile foreign country are exacerbated by their son’s bad behavior. Severe discipline, mandatory church attendance, and threats from the local police do little to get Louis to change. Only when his older brother, Pete, suggests that he join the high school track team do things take a turn. As it fate would have it, years of running from the police enabled Louis to excel at long-distance races.

Over time, Louis becomes a fierce competitor, learning to win racing events after starting out dead last. This tenacity and indomitable spirit take him all the way to the 1938 Olympic Games held in Berlin. They are also what get him through the horrors of a world war.  

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

For those viewers who are squeamish when it comes to war films, consider seeing this movie for the sheer joy of watching a man who refuses to give up on life when he has every reason to quit, shrivel up, and die. The obstacles begin almost immediately when Louis’ bomber squad crash lands in the Pacific. After a narrowly drowning, he somehow escapes and is one of three men to survive. The pilot, Phil, a fellow survivor, is a man of faith, and espouses his belief in God and the afterlife during their hours of baking in the sun while drifting over the waves in a life raft. In contrast, the other survivor, Mac, is filled with fear, which eventually seals his doom.

The days go on and on, and still there is no hope of rescue. With rations short, water low, and sharks circling (yes, there is a Jaws moment), death seems certain. One stormy night as Louis hangs on to the raft for dear life, he makes a pact with God, pledging to dedicate his life to Him should they survive the ordeal. The prayer is answered, but not in the way Louis had hoped. He and Phil are rescued and sent to a Japanese POW camp, which can only be described as a literal “hell on earth.” Beatings with a hard cane are the norm, as well as torture, starvation, and hard, manual labor that reduce the best of men to nothing other than brute beasts. Louis’ character is severely tested, as is that indomitable spirit that first revealed itself on the high school track years ago.

Takamasa Ishimhara shines as Watanabe, the Japanese commanding officer of the POW camp who is the epitome of evil. His innocent, androgynous appearance combined with his ruthless, psychopathic behavior make him a very sinister and memorable antagonist. With a sympathetic back story, the viewer has a slight understanding as to the genesis of his maniacal behavior, but still, one cannot fathom a human being so callously wicked.

Aware of Louis’ Olympic background, Watanabe does his best to break Louis’ spirit and belittle him in front of the other men, but to no avail. It seems that the more evil Watanabe heaps on Louis, the stronger Louis becomes. Just when things can’t seem to get any worse, they do, culminating in a powerful climax where a superhuman, Christ-like sacrificial strength enables Louis to cheat death. The faith message is very subtle in this scene and can be easily overlooked, but if one has eyes to see, it is there. Again, I would have liked to have seen a greater reference to Jesus in Louis’ over-all faith-walk, but the way Jolie presented his spiritual growth is effective, nonetheless.

Unbroken is entertaining and thought-provoking with an uplifting message that appeals to all ages. However, it remains to be seen how other Christians will view the faith elements in this story. As a note, I viewed the movie in a packed theater full of suburban Atlantans, and the ending was met with a hearty applause.  

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