Review: “Unbroken”

The relationship that develops between Louie Zamperini and his sadistic torturer lies at the heart of "Unbroken."
The relationship that develops between Louie Zamperini and his sadistic torturer lies at the heart of “Unbroken.”

It’s been a year of big biopics. From scientists Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing to artists J.M.W. Turner and Margaret Keane to the one and only Martin Luther King, Jr., the storied lives and times of extraordinary men and women have paraded across our screens. Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” is one of the latest in this cavalcade, and like a few of its predecessors, falls short in the same, lamentably predictable way.

Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s incredible recounting of the same name, “Unbroken” traces the life of Louie Zamperini, Italian-American, Olympian, bombardier, prisoner of war. No movie can effectively fold a person’s life within its two hours, let alone one as extraordinary as this, but “Unbroken” follows Louie from his childhood home, where he’s saved from other boys by policemen chasing him for stealing, all the way through the end of World War II. Worried that Louie will end up in prison, his track star brother finds an outlet for the young tramp’s boundless energy: running. Soon, young Louie is tearing local records to shreds and sent packing to Berlin to compete in Hitler’s infamous Olympics. He breaks a record, but doesn’t win a medal, since Berlin is just a warm-up for Tokyo, 1940. As it turns out, Louie never gets to go, but he does end up in Tokyo a few years later—as a prisoner of war.

The movie is at its best in the earlier sections, carried forward by the adrenaline of Louie’s running career, air combat, and his dramatic plane crash. But what Jolie fails to understand is that showing a series of extraordinary events in an individual’s life is not the key to a great biopic. The appeal lies in the individual. Louie’s story is gripping, but there’s very little Louie in it. We see his suffering, but not his spirit. We understand very little about him—who he is, the aspects of his character that allow him to endure so much, how he copes with his ordeal. At most, it seems to be the thought of his mother’s gnocchi that keeps him going.

The movie hints at these complexities in its strongest section, when Louie’s plane crashes into the ocean and he and two others are stranded in a raft on the Pacific for 47 days. It’s a physical and mental struggle to survive the sun, starvation, thirst, sharks, and despair, and the men attack sharks for food and play games to stay mentally fit. Louie’s resourcefulness, humor, and resilience wiggle through here, as he refuses to accept defeat, reacts quickly to situations, and keeps both himself and his friends going.

Jack O’Connell, unknown in this country, is excellent as Louie, as is Domhnall Gleeson as his friend and fellow survivor. (After all, it takes talent to make lines like, “If I can take it, I can make it” feel genuine.) “Unbroken” is also a beautiful movie to watch, thanks to cinematography by Roger Deakins. Jolie has clearly done her research here; her Berlin Olympics echo the eerie pomp of Leni Riefenstahl, but the POW camp scenes are too reminiscent of “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” The sadistic, homoerotic relationship that develops between Louie and his vicious torturer, camp commander Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, lies at the heart of the movie, but Jolie holds back from exploring the complicated tensions and impulses beneath the brutal beatings and targeted attacks—much to the movie’s detriment.

Louie Zamperini’s enthralling story is enough to keep “Unbroken” going, but it’s another missed opportunity to bring an incredible individual to life. Louie’s ordeal is unforgettable, but Louie himself is forgotten in it. The movie celebrates the triumph of the human spirit, but it doesn’t adequately capture that spirit, and in so doing, does a disservice to the story, the actors, and Louie Zamperini himself.

For Your Consideration: July 4, 2014


Never such innocence, / Never before or since

– from “MCMXIV,” by Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Today, Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the founding of our nation, a splash of resounding, indelible rhetoric in the midst of a bloody armed conflict. But earlier this week marked a more dubious milestone, the 100th anniversary of an event with earth-shattering implications: for it was on June 28, 1914 that Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, kicking off the diplomatic crisis that would quickly turn into the churning, destructive four-year grindstone that was World War I. It was a major anniversary that seemed to pass with relatively little notice: A.O. Scott wrote an exceptional piece for the New York Times on the war’s cultural legacy; and in a few short hours, France and Germany will metaphorically revisit their century-old conflict, this time on the fields of Maracanã rather than Verdun. But otherwise, it seems an occasion no one is too sure how to mark.

Not to put too flippant a spin on what should be a somber topic, but at The Best Films of Our Lives we always find a movie an appropriate method of recognition and deliberation. WWI films often get lost in the deluge of material related to WWII, but from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “Gallipoli” there are any number of striking, powerful films that consider the frightful impact of the Great War. Today we provide an in-depth look at three such works.

– Ethan

“Grand Illusion” (1937)

Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim, Dita Parlo

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Jean Renoir’s masterpiece of class tension and the futility of armed warfare stretches far beyond its supposed inspiration, a book (published in 1909) by British economist Norman Angell that argued war worked against the common economic interest of all European nations, and was therefore pointless. Renoir takes a far less mathematical approach: his “grand illusion” is not simply that war erects artificial economic barriers, but that it pits men with no quarrel whatsoever against each other in life or death struggle. Or…is the “illusion” the constructed, meticulous class hierarchy of European society, laid waste by the mass destruction and disillusionment of the war? Or is it the foolhardy notion that mankind even can, or will, ever stop fighting itself? Renoir’s humanist classic considers all these angles and more, wrapped in a gripping drama of French POWs and the stuffy, yet sympathetic German aristocrat (von Stroheim, in a performance for the ages) tasked with guarding them. The Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg in Alsace, where many of the exteriors of the POW camp were filmed, is one of the cinema’s greatest and most eerie settings: cast aside from the war and forced to consider their place in the world, these men hang almost literally hang on the razor’s edge.

– Ethan

“Random Harvest” (1942)

Cast: Greer Garson, Ronald Colman, Susan Peters, Philip Dorn

Available to rent or purchase on iTunes, on disc from Netflix

“Random Harvest” is not strictly a war movie, but it is grounded in the First World War and the trauma it inflicted upon the men it devoured. The film opens in the autumn of 1918 at Melbridge County Asylum in the English Midlands, “grimly proud of its new military wing, which was to house the shattered minds of the war that was to end war.” John Smith (Ronald Colman) is one of these men, though his affliction is but a loss of memory and a stutter. He wanders away from the asylum on the day the war ends—the guard leaves the gate open in the euphoria of the moment—and meets Paula (Greer Garson), a warm, compassionate actress who falls in love with him and takes him in. What unfolds is a story of love, patience, amnesia, and reconciliation. The characters and their odyssey are at the center, but the war and its damage never fade from view.

– Elaine

“Joyeux Nöel” (2005)

Cast: Guillaume Canet, Daniel Brühl, Benno Fürmann, Diane Kruger, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon

Available to purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Every child knows that on the first Christmas of the Great War, the warring sides laid down their arms, joined in celebration, and played a game of football. History tells us that there was not one Christmas truce, but many spontaneous ones scattered along the Western Front where soldiers indeed sang carols, shared food, and played their favorite game across the mud of No Man’s Land. “Joyeux Nöel” seeks to dramatize the communion of one particular group of German, Scottish, and French soldiers on the holiest of nights in 1914. With soft, snowy scenes that seem sketched by pastels, the trilingual French film is a romantic look at a romantic story, but succeeds in conveying the universal suffering and shared humanity of the soldiers who fought and died. 

One of its best moments is a funny debate between a French and a German soldier about a cat who belongs to the farm the trenches run through. The Frenchman call it Nestor, the German Felix, and the cat roams freely between the two sides, who can often hear each other breathing at night. It’s a reminder of just how close the enemies were in the trenches, physically and emotionally, and how the First World War was a fratricide, a bloodbath of millions of men on a continent that turned on itself. 

– Elaine

For Your Consideration: May 16, 2014

From a biopic of Joseph Mallord Turner to a comedy pitting gay rights activists against striking miners, from a mountainous meditation on isolation to Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, this year’s Cannes Film Festival is filled with gems from near and far, diverse in both its topics and its nations. While we’re sure that one day we’ll be strolling down la Croisette and bringing you reviews live from France, for now we picked three of our favorite films that have taken home the coveted Palme d’Or. 

– Elaine

“The Cranes Are Flying” (1957)

Cast: Tatiana Samoilova, Aleksei Batalov, Vasily Merkurev, Aleksandr Shvorin, Svetlana Kharitonova

Available for instant streaming, with subtitles, on YouTube and Hulu Pluson disc from Netflix

“The Cranes Are Flying” opens, like many a film, with a pair of young lovers walking home in the morning, laughing about their night out, making plans, and shushing each other for being too loud. But then it takes an unusual turn. As Boris is about to leave his beloved Veronica, he suddenly remembers something and sprints back up the stairs of the apartment building, the camera following him in a dizzying blur as he completes each ascending circle. It’s a startling choice by director Mikhail Kalatozov, but one that returns in lyrical, poignant fashion as the movie continues.

It is one of many colorful touches in this artful, sensitive testament the Russian people and their struggle in the Second World War. Unlike many Soviet depictions of the Great Patriotic War, it does not shy away from the uglier aspects of the time, from draft dodging to the black market to the wounded and dead. Its realism makes it a rich historical document; the lead performance by Tatiana Samoilova, who passed away earlier this month, makes it unforgettable. Made only four years after Stalin’s death, “The Cranes Are Flying” marked the beginning of Russia’s thaw with the West, and remains to date the only Russian film to win the Palme d’Or. Should Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan”, a meditation on the human condition based on the Book of Job, claim the top prize this year, it would be joining mighty company.

– Elaine

“Paris, Texas” (1984)

Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, Aurore Clément, Nastassja Kinski

Available streaming on Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, iTunes; on disc from Netflix

Roger Ebert once wrote that “Paris, Texas” is a story of “loss upon loss.” When we first meet Travis (Harry Dean Stanton, in one of the all-time great screen performances), he’s wandering the deserts of Texas – no family, no purpose, barely even a name or a memory. Wim Wenders’ gentle, deliberately paced masterpiece will both build Travis back up from and strip him down again to that state, as we slowly piece together the path that led this ragged, broken man to abandon civilization altogether. The hole that he’s stumbled into is self-made, but will he manage to clamber back out again?

A modern rejiggering of John Ford’s “The Searchers,” Wenders’ unanimous Palme winner is first and foremost about a man who doesn’t fit in society, and his search for a woman burdened with being his only link to redemption. The German director’s main narrative addition to the formula, however, is the presence of Travis’ son – a suggestion of fatherhood as an alternate path for Travis to escape his self-destruction. But beyond that, what sets “Paris, Texas” apart is Wenders’ peculiar brand of magical realism: like “Wings of Desire,” the setting and narrative trappings are the stuff of mundanity (Peter Falk getting a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, Harry Dean Stanton ambling into a dive bar as the worn-out sign creaks in the desert breeze), but the archetypical sense of questing for fulfillment and absolution catapults the film into the realm of fable and myth.

– Ethan

“Barton Fink” (1991)

Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito

Available streaming on Netflix, Amazon Instant, iTunes

Even for the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” is a weird, weird film. You could call it the Coens’ David Lynch movie, their Kafka movie, their Faulkner movie, and their Wallace Beery movie and technically you’d be right on all counts. If it’s about anything at all, it’s about artistic frustration – supposedly spawned during the troubles the brothers had while writing “Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink” follows a successful Broadway playwright (Turturro) who quickly finds himself completely out of his element when offered a Hollywood studio contract. What follows is a hodgepodge of literary allusions, religious overtones and horror film tropes that somehow adds up to a comprehensive and utterly bizarre vision of what it’s like to have writer’s block. Turturro and Goodman are standouts but as always the Coens brilliantly cast right down to the smallest bit players; Michael Lerner’s portrayal of the Louis B. Mayer-esque studio head Lipnick is a particular delight.

– Ethan