If you watch (and buy into) ads and marketing long enough, you'll surely discover just how misleading it can be. Trailers and TV ads are notorious for selling a different kind of film than you end up watching if you decide to, and Angelina Jolie's sophomore effort in the director's chair, Unbroken, is the latest film to fall prey to this. Unbroken is based on the true story of Olympic runner Louis "Louie" Zamperini, who suffered intense brutality as a POW during WWII. The film is based on a book (which this reviewer has not read) and the story is one of strength, faith, and forgiveness. However, the film doesn't quite capture all of those elements as well as it probably could have.
I bring up marketing because what Unbroken is being sold as this triumphant, feel-good, underdog rises kind of story. While there are pieces of the film that fit that description, nearly every hint of the Olympic part of Louie's story is told in flashbacks within the first quarter of the film, while the bulk of it focuses on the intense and brutal hardships that Zamperini had to endure adrift at sea for over 40 days and then as a prisoner of war under the thumb of the Japanese. As such, the audience is bombarded with scene after scene of torture, beatings, mistreatment and humiliation that Louie and his fellow POW's had to endure. As one person leaving the same theater as we did noted, it almost feels like watching The Passion of the Christ all over again. There's a message to embrace here, but it's an exhausting film emotionally--and a difficult one to watch.
I kept noting while watching Unbroken, however, just how beautifully shot the film was, and artfully presented. Jolie crafted an expertly made film here, even if it falters at times. From the opening scene, with Louie and other soldiers manning a bomber during an airstrike, I found myself captivated. However, after another flight, they crash and are lost at sea... for well over a month. Some of the men that survived the initial crash end up making it through the ridiculously long time lost at sea, but only to find themselves being "rescued" by the Japanese Navy. Out of the frying pan and into the fire would be a masterpiece of understatement. So as these men are going from one horribly bad day and experience to another, so is the audience. And we have the hard task of watching the central character literally get beaten time and time again--whether it's a rod to the face or head, or being punched repeatedly in the face by a dozens of guys for hours. Unbroken is not a film for the faint of heart.
I feel the need to discuss the film's very end to truly present my complete thoughts on the film to you. It's not a grand spoiler, but it does reveal how it all ends. So if you don't want to know, kindly skip this paragraph. After we sit through two-plus hours of Louie suffering greatly, the film concludes after the war is over and he returns home. Jolie then gives us an epilogue of text over the screen that tells what happened next for Louie and for a few other main characters. In this, she reveals that Louie eventually made good on a promise to serve God by going back to Japan to seek out those who tortured him and extend them forgiveness. It's something so powerful, it feels criminal that it wasn't made part of the film in visual form. The long sequences of abuse Louie endured didn't need to be quite so extensive. It ended up feeling far too excessive and almost gratuitous--and almost in the same way someone like Michael Bay overdoes it with action scenes. After a while, it just felt like all Unbroken had to offer was a test to see how much the audience could endure of seeing an Italian-American get abused and beaten-down -- literally! To show us Louie extending the hand of forgiveness to these people years later would have been a truly impactful gesture and thing to witness. When one stops to realize all that we were shown instead, it's difficult not to feel a bit cheated.
The content is, as you can imagine, pretty substantially brutal. There's some blood during the war scenes in the beginning, but nothing too graphic. When they're lost at sea, we see them cutting open a seagull with some blood (I got queasy), cutting open a shark and removing organs (also pretty gross) and gnawing on raw fish right out of the water. Once they become prisoners, we see two men forced to take their clothes off and we see their bare butts a couple times, and then front views of them covering their genitals (with some hair visible). Later, there's several instances where Louie is hit in the head and we see blood on his face and head. Another scene has him being punched by dozens of men and we see, in a dimly lit scene, that his face is covered in blood. We also briefly see a soldier missing two fingernails which presumably had been pulled off during an interrogation. For profanity, there isn't much, just a couple uses of mild language, a few uses of the "S" word, and one of "g*dd*mn," but one scene where Louie screams in frustration may have been the "F" word, but it wasn't clear enough to say for sure.
Like Rescue Dawn before it, Unbroken is a film largely about soldiers in captivity and their mistreatment, but it's also about the endurance of the human spirit. While it's true that Louie was found to be virtually "unbreakable," it's still tough to watch fellow souls being mistreated, beaten, and abused. To make matters worse, it was evident that these men had lost nearly all hope (if not all hope) by the film's climax, and that alone makes it even more difficult to endure. While we know, as viewers, that there is an eventual end for the torment, it's heartbreaking to witness a true story unfolding about men in wicked conditions who cannot see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. There are certainly aspects of inspiration to be found here, and we never stop rooting for Louie and his comrades, but Jolie seems to have missed a wonderful opportunity to trade some of the unrelenting torture screen time for the spiritual redemption and forgiveness part of the story that only gets a mention in passing instead.
- John DiBiase (reviewed: 12/14/14)
Parental Guide: Brief Summary of Content
Sex/Nudity: When a runner is timed, a friend jokes "4:12... I hope you're not that fast in the sack!"; Phil and Louie are commanded to disrobe fully and we see their bare butts a couple times with their hands in front of them over their genitals (but some pubic hair is visible)
Vulgarity/Language: 3 "S" words, 1 "g*dd*mn," 1 "a" word, 6 "d*mn," 1 "S.O.B," 2 "Oh my G-d," 1 "Oh G-d" (There's possibly one use of the "F" word, but it was hard to discern from yelling in the scene)
Alcohol/Drugs: None. (Although there may be some miscellaneous drinking in the background)
Blood/Gore: Aboard their bomber, after being hit with gunfire, we see a soldier with blood on their face. Louie also notices blood running down a soldier's pant leg and dripping down; A soldier has blood on him after a plane crashes; Phil has blood on his head and hand after they crash in the ocean. A bloody bandage is wrapped around his head for these scenes. When it's removed, we see a scar healing where the wound was; The guys suddenly grab the bird, hold it down and break its neck. They then cut it open and we see some blood. They react disgustedly to what we don't see off screen. They then agree to try to eat it. It then cuts to all three of them throwing up over the side of the raft (and see the vomit projecting out); We see the guys eating raw fish they just caught; They catch and kill a shark and we see them cutting it open (with some blood) and removing organs to eat; We see some blood in the water and a dead shark with other sharks starting to attack it; Mutsushiro Watanabe hits Louie in the face repeatedly with a rod and he ends up having lots of blood on his nose and mouth; We see Fitzgerald missing two fingernails, which had been pulled off during interrogation (not seen); A Japanese soldier hits Louie in the head a few more times, bloodying the side of his head. He appears to have a split in the side of his ear which heals later in the movie as a scar; Louie is punched in the face repeatedly by dozens of men and we see varying amounts of blood on his head. We then see his face from a distance in the dark covered with blood; Louie has healing scars on his face from this in later scenes; The Japanese transport the captives through a town and we see lots of dead and bloody and somewhat burned bodies on the streets.
Violence: We see Louie and his team of bombardiers fly over enemy territory and drop bombs from their plane. They're then hit with return fire, injuring some of his comrades; In a flashback, we see kids beating down on Louie for being Italian; We see a child get spanked briefly; A plane crash lands and we see a soldier is injured; After engine malfunction, their plane crashes in the ocean and breaks apart, killing several of the soldiers. Louie gets trapped momentarily in the sinking plane before escaping; We see Phil with a bandage on his head for much of the raft scenes; A seagull lands on their raft while they're lost at sea and starving. The guys suddenly grab the bird, hold it down and break its neck. They then cut it open and we see some blood. They react disgustedly to what we don't see off screen. They then agree to try to eat it. It then cuts to all three of them throwing up over the side of the raft; We see the guys eating raw fish they just caught; They catch and kill a shark and we see them cutting it open (with some blood) and removing organs to eat; A Japanese plane fires on the rafts in two different passes, missing the survivors. They then scramble to patch the bullet holes and a shark circling their raft lunges at them. They beat it away with an oar; We see an emaciated man talking about how they think they will die that night. It then cuts to his comrades wrapping up his body and dumping it in the water. We see it sink below the surface; After being taken to a Japanese camp, Louie is locked in a small vertical box (about the size of a port-a-potty). He screams and beats the walls as he hears Phil being beaten outside; Louie is hit with sticks; Some Japanese soldiers beat Louie with sticks to get him to kneel; Mutsushiro Watanabe hits Louie in the face repeatedly with a rod; Watanabe makes Louie race a Japanese soldier. Louie falls, however, and when he gets up, Watanabe hits him with his stick; An American soldier is beaten mercilessly with a rod; A Japanese soldier hits Louie in the head a few more times; Watanabe orders that Louie is held down and punched in the face by every American in the camp. They refuse and Watanabe brings out another soldier and starts hitting him with the rod. Louie then yells for his buddies to hit him and one after another, they punch him in the face. We see that this goes on for some time (it gets dark) and Louie can hardly stand; The prison camp is attacked by allies and some of the buildings catch on fire. There are some explosions as well; The Japanese transport the captives through a town and we see lots of dead and bloody and somewhat burned bodies on the streets; Louie is hit in the head by Watanabe; A prisoner falls off a high set of stairs while carrying coal; A Japanese soldier pushes Louie down a short set of stairs and he hurts his ankle; Exhausted, Louie stops working for a moment and they make him hold a large wooden beam above his head. When he raises it higher after some time, Watanabe hits him and then kicks him while he's down.
** Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's rating.