There's a scene in "Unbroken" where a young and restless Louie Zamperini is sitting in a church while the priest shares a passage from Genesis 1:16. Unfocused and disinterested, a young Zamperini (played by CJ Valleroy) is far more interested in other members of the congregation particularly a young woman seated across the pew. But when he hears the priest tell congregants to "love thy enemy" it's a line that captures his attention. It's also an important scene in this film, which follows the true story of Louis "Louie" Zamperini, a former Olympic athlete and war hero who endured severe hardship in a Japanese prison camp, for it's the choice that he made to forgive his captors that strikes a chord.
Separated into three parts, "Unbroken" takes the straightforward aspects first and introduces audiences to a young Louie Zamperini who was an incorrigible delinquent everyone in town wanted "put away." We learn through Angelina Jolie's skillful direction how he finally channeled his defiance into running through the help of his older brother Pete (played first by John D'Leo, then by Alex Russell), and qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
The movie quickly moves to the second act. Once World War II begins, the athlete, now played by British actor Jack O'Connell becomes an airman, embarking on a journey that led to a doomed flight in April 1943 when his Army Air Forces bomber suffered engine failure and crashed into the Pacific Ocean killing eight of the 11 crew members upon impact. Against all odds, he and the pilot survive adrift on a life raft in miles of open ocean for 47 days, only to be rescued by the Japanese navy and thrown into prison camps where they are gruesomely tortured by a sadistic camp commandant, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (played by Japanese Singer Miyavi), known to the men as "The Bird," for particular sadistic acts of mind games and deplorable brutality. He takes a perverse shine to Zamperini, raining abuse and intolerable cruelty on him with belt buckles and batons. "You're like me," he tells him in one scene." In another scene, he orders the other prisoners to line up and punch him in the face. Why? Simply because he feels a helpless Zamperini is being disrespectful.
Jolie never lets us forget for one minute that this is an intense story of survival against all odds right until August 20, 1945 when the prisoners were freed once the war was over. Although the movie doesn't break any new ground - this kind of film has been done dozens of times before ("The Bridge on the River Kwai," The Deer Hunter"), "Unbroken" still works powerfully well as an incredible story of personal survival as it's a fact-based story of courage under extreme circumstances, which gives the film its adrenaline effect. The sheer brutal force of the beatings also makes for very uncomfortable viewing at times especially coupled with a dramatic score.
The sermon Zamperini heard as a kid does play an important role in the film. At one point, he interrupts the prayers of his best Army Air Force friend and pilot, "Phil" Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), and says, "My mother does that sometimes." After they crash into the Pacific and float away from the wreckage he seeks a deal with God. If He really acts like a savior, Zamperini says he will devote his life to Him.
The real life Louie Zamperini died on July 2 at the age of 97 and his accomplishments could span another half hour biography. He battled post-traumatic stress and alcoholism becoming a born-again Christian after hearing a young pastor by the name of Rev. Billy Graham speak in September 1949 and made forgiveness the theme of his life. In subsequent years, he devoted himself to spreading the word of spirituality, fortitude and forgiveness...going so far as to travel back to Japan and making peace with the very tormentors who had starved him and beat him senseless. Only "The Bird" refused to meet with him.
Anyone looking for a lot of action or continuous frenzied gunfire in this may be disappointed with "Unbroken." But those who want to know what it was like for real-life war hero to survive his capture in a prisoner of war camp will be moved by the themes and issues of life-faith, war, struggle, commitment, endurance and resilience-which are all the themes that run through the film.
A well-paced biographical take on the life of Louie Zamperini, "Unbroken" takes what could have been a mundane if well-made war story into something greater - more harrowing, more hungry and more human and is an enthralling story that explores the human spirit in the most devastating of circumstance.