When it comes to depicting a remarkable true story on the big screen, it still requires a talented storyteller to bring it to life and illuminate the narrative – no matter how incredible it may already be. In the case of Unbroken, which studies the life of Louis Zamperini, it’s been left in rather good hands, with the Coen brothers penning the screenplay, and Angelina Jolie sitting in the director’s chair.
Jack O’Connell plays Zamperini, who began his life as a mischievous troublemaker, often getting in trouble with the law. He needed a distraction, something to focus his energy on – and that came in the form of running. He was breathtakingly fast and was rewarded for his efforts when representing the USA in the 1936 Olympic Games, where he broke the recorded for a single lap in the 5000m race. Though before he had the chance to revel in his triumph and start training for the next event in Tokyo, he found himself on Japanese soil for all of the wrong reasons, after a plane crash during the Second World War left him stranded in the ocean, where he was serving. Until finally he was found – by Japanese soldiers, and in particular, the callous, cold-hearted captor, ‘The Bird’ (Miyavi), as he became a prisoner of war.
The structure to this piece is well-judged, as we move seamlessly between flashbacks to his childhood and his tragic circumstances when stranded. What transpires is an emotionally draining film, and one that really puts the viewer through the paces. What helps create this atmosphere and tone that is so memorable, is to also have the likes of cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer Alexandre Desplat. The performances are exceptional too, with O’Connell shining in the leading role, making his mark on Hollywood with a performance that could even earn the talented young actor an Academy Award nomination. He is matched at every turn by Miyavi too, as the rockstar – making his very first appearance – is subtle and nuanced in his conviction, depicting what is an intriguing rivalry between these two men – a complex, multi-faceted one at that.
But in spite of the harrowing elements and the disgusting treatment of these soldiers at the camp, there is an oddly uplifting feeling about this piece, that derives from Zamperini’s spirit, his resilience and mental strength; ensuring there’s a positive message to take out of this distinctively negative set of events. This story had been floating around Hollywood for over 50 years – originally an idea in 1957 for Tony Curtis to undertake. But while it’s been a long time coming, it’s just a relief it has been told, and been told so well.