The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



There's an old saying about how some stories are so amazing, no one would believe them if they were fictional. Laura Hillenbrand told one such story in her acclaimed book Unbroken, which was appropriately subtitled A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. The subject of the book, and its new Angelina Jolie-directed film adaptation, is Louis Zamperini. In the annuls of 20th century history, Zamperini's tale has got to be one of the most unbelievably fascinating. So much so that it holds together a movie that is, at its core, fairly conventional.

Jack O'Connell (Tower Block) plays Zamperini, a young man who was brought up in a strict household. As a teenager, he gets into a lot of trouble, but then begins running track. This activity brings out his fierce competitiveness, while also teaching him a lesson that will become valuable later on: Push through the pain and never give up. Zamperini eventually goes on to become an Olympic athlete. Later, he joins the service during WWII and flies in a bomber. His plane crashes, but he and two others survive. Unfortunately, they are left adrift at sea for 47 agonizing days before being “rescued” by the Japanese navy. Zamperini then gets sent to one of their prisoner-of-war camps, where the official in charge, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Miyavi), subjects him to a variety of mental and physical abuses.

The title Unbroken, as you may have guessed, refers to Louis Zamperini's spirit. Here is a man who endured hardships most people could not imagine, and he did not break. Rather than crumbling under the weight of these things, he held on to the belief that he could endure. Not even six weeks baking in the blazing sun on a vast ocean, with precious little to eat, could defeat him. Part of what's so enticing about the movie is the complete astonishment that sets in as you watch this person repeatedly go from the frying pan into the fire, without ever really burning up.

In that regard, Unbroken is a rousing success. There is a deeply psychological element to watching the film, as it forces you to place yourself in Zamperini's shoes. Time and time again, you see his story unfolding, aware that you probably could not do what he is doing. People go to superhero movies to see inhuman feats of bravery and strength. This guy is a real-life superhero, and his journey has all the excitement and hold-your-breath suspense of any great comic book picture.

As a filmmaker, Jolie takes great pains to paint Zamperini's ordeals as authentically as possible. The plane crash is harrowing. The scenes lost at sea, which take up a fair chunk of the film's middle section, convey the despair and emptiness that would surely come from being stranded in a small raft with nowhere to go and no one to call for help. Once the story moves to the POW camp, Unbroken takes on a palpably ominous tone. Thanks to the superb performance from actor/musician Miyavi, the Bird is a truly fearsome figure with no moral compunction about mistreating his captives. Because of the care put into all these depictions, the film powerfully conveys the many hardships Zamperini went through, which makes his triumph over them even more affecting.

The only real misstep in Unbroken is that, as I said, it plays very conventionally. Almost old-fashioned, in fact. This is a typical Inspirational Drama, cast in the old-school mold. Nothing about it is groundbreaking or different. Aside from a few poignant mentions of his Christian faith, Zamperini's endurance is attributed primarily to the strength of his will, without further investigation. Some scenes getting more inside his head during moments of severe crisis would have given Unbroken a slightly sharper, more current edge. (See the depiction of Martin Luther King in Selma for an example of how this kind of thing is done right.) Jack O'Connell is a terrific young actor who certainly has the chops for some deeper, more internal work. The movie could have provided him with the chance to convey whatever mental process Zamperini employed to keep going.

That may sound like a major flaw - and, in some respects, it is. Nevertheless, Louis Zamperini's story is inherently engaging, and Unbroken does it enough justice to make that flaw fairly easy to get past. On par, it's a film that amazes, entertains, and inspires admiration, even when it's not perfect.

( 1/2 out of four)

Unbroken is rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language. The running time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.

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