By | 12/16/14 6:01pm
Put this one at the top of your must-see list. Angelina Jolie might not, in my opinion, have yet reached the heights of the acting profession, but with this passionate, inspired, technically awesome and profoundly exciting chronicle of the life of Louie Zamperini, the American Olympic athlete who survived 47 days in a lifeboat and two years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II, she rises to the top rank of first-class film directors in a male-dominated field overcrowded with hacks.
Beginning with a troubled childhood as the son of Italian immigrants in California, Louie was an outsider who seemed destined for a life of crime, but it was the guidance of an older brother that gave him a talisman to live by: “If I can take it, I can make it.” Played with enormous charisma and extraordinary physical endurance by rising U.K. newcomer and inevitable future star Jack O’Connell, Louie moves from the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin to the rank of pilot, shot down with two comrades and left wounded and bleeding in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific. Then, the capture by the Japanese Navy—plunged into an underground hole where he listened to his best friend being tortured, and finally found himself the personal victim of a sadistic commandant (played unflinchingly by the Japanese singer-composer Miyavi) who subjected him to years of unflagging brutality.
It’s hard to believe anyone could survive inhumanities this severe and still live, but Louie earned a Purple Heart, realized his dream of attending one last Olympics (in Japan, of all places!) and went on to tell his story in the critically acclaimed biography Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, which spent 180 weeks on the best-seller list before becoming the source material for this remarkable screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson.
Ms. Jolie’s obsession with Louie, who died in July at age 97, informs every scene. The air strikes and raft and camp sequences hold equal weight, the camerawork by Roger Deakins is magnificent, and the vast supporting cast of unknowns including Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock and Luke Treadaway, is exemplary. Although it eschews the usual P.O.W. camp clichés, Unbroken is probably too grim, brutal and depressing for most viewers, and the decision to open it on Christmas Day is questionable. But as a tribute to one hero’s fortitude in refusing to give in to evil, it gives off its own admirable feeling of positive spiritual energy that left me feeling good about the best qualities of mankind. One of the finest achievements of the 2014 film year.