“If you can take it you can make it”

Universal Pictures has possessed the rights to Louie Zamperini’s life story since 1957 with good cause considering its scope spanning a troubled childhood, Olympic glory, and POW torture at the hands of the Japanese during WWII. Only when Laura Hillenbrand‘s mouthful of a book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption came out in 2010 was traction finally found assumedly in large part due to her previous adaptation at the hands of Hollywood, Seabiscuit, earning seven Oscar nominations. The film still had its own stumbles through multiple screenwriters (William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese began the undertaking with Joel and Ethan Coen finishing) and directors (Francis Lawrencewas attached before Angelina Jolie took over) too, but that’s almost to be expected with subject matter so brutal in its quest for empowering forgiveness.

Like Werner Herzog‘s Rescue DawnUnbroken‘s cast willingly puts their bodies through hell to ensure the deplorable conditions suffered come across onscreen. Jolie’s keen on keeping the aesthetic authentic and doesn’t skimp on protruding rib cages or dirt-caked crow’s feet at her actors’ eyes. The film looks gorgeous as a result with its subdued palette filtering flashbacks of young Louie (C.J. Valleroy) terrorizing the town to the chagrin of big brother Pete (John D’Leo) and the track star he would become into a period-specific haze. But before we get there we must first meet an older Louie (Jack O’Connell) bolstering morale on a bomber flying over Japan as he takes aim and drops his cargo. With an easy smile and seemingly unending optimism, he stays strong for those who can’t just like Pete did for him years ago.

This effect of splicing in the evidence of how a kid sneaking liquor from a milk bottle could become a selfless hero while facing his own mortality is a welcome device. The Coens and Jolie could have easily gone the Rayway and started at the beginning, but that would have been a costly mistake—one to cause me to check out before it even begun. No, Unbroken needs to commence in the air above the Pacific with explosions and gunfire portraying the reality of who Zamperini was beyond his adolescence. The man in that plane with soldiers just like him sacrificing their lives for freedom is the Louie this story depicts. Everything previously may have shaped him and ensured he’d be singled out in the prison camps, but they were memories of a past life.

What he goes through on the Pacific is a nightmare of epic proportions that only gets worse with every turn. Forty-seven days drifting on a raft with two fellow survivors in Russell Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis McNamara (Finn Wittrock) only to be rescued by the enemy and tortured for two and a half years before the end of the war? Add on the worst luck while captive with the best thing that could happen to him getting reversed in short order and you’ll start wondering how he made it through. You can say it was God’s will—and Louie might have agreed with you—but I have to believe it was something more. The way Jolie shows it, I think she does too because everything onscreen points to Zamperini’s heart. And a little luck definitely doesn’t hurt.

While the verisimilitude of visuals and performances go a long way, I would be lying if I said I didn’t almost nod off a few times. At just under two and a half hours this film is long and it feels so due to the uncensored violence of war being difficult to stomach. It’s one thing to watch the assault on the beaches of Normandy as nameless faces perish in a kinetic mess of carnage, but it’s another to see a character you’ve invested in standing still and doing as ordered only to be beaten with a bamboo pole until he’s on his knees covered in blood. Takamasa Ishihara (Miyavi) is evil incarnate as Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe (“The Bird”), lording over his prisoners with an erratic personality leading to abuse for pleasure again and again and again.

Jolie might have been better served by trimming a few minutes here and there to remove redundancies. With enough time spent in the life raft and in the camps to possibly fill two individual films, the direness gets overwhelming. The fact that each glimmer of hope is dashed barely a minute after being introduced only helps us to feel as demoralized as the characters living out these horrors. On one hand this is a credit to Jolie as a director because we rally alongside Zamperini through every struggle. On the other, however, it becomes difficult to stay focused and wanting to finish the ride when the point has come and gone long before the end appears. Luckily the cast has the ability to captivate us and see past the futility of their environment towards their inner strength.

No one stays for too long but all deliver performances their real-life counterparts could take pride in. WhetherAlex Russell as Louie’s emotional-center Pete or Garrett Hedlund‘s John Fitzgerald providing a pillar of authority in the camp who’s always vigilant for the Allies despite his circumstances, these boys help paint this world. Gleeson withers away before our eyes, injured yet undefeated and Ishihara embodies his monster with a layer of vulnerability that makes him even more dangerous and unpredictable. But it’s O’Connell who stands out above all as the joyful soul finding the mettle to stand up and look each problem in the face with tenacity. Having just seen his ferocious turn in Starred Up, this is a complete 180 and evidence of his immense talent. Physically beaten and completely wasted away, the fire in his eyes remains.

Score: 7/10 

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 137 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): Angelina Jolie
Writer(s): Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson / 
Laura Hillenbrand (book)