Unbroken is the improbable true story of Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini, whose extraordinary and harrowing adventures would make him either the luckiest man in the world or the most blessed.

Unbroken is the improbable true story of Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini, whose extraordinary and harrowing adventures would make him either the luckiest man in the world or the most blessed.

Zamperini, whose Christian faith would later shape his path and life, would surely prefer that his fate came from the latter. But as the film’s title suggests, there was something remarkably different about the man whose will would be tested, perhaps even bent, but never snapped.

Jack O’Connell plays Louis, an Italian-American who as a boy was a frequent delinquent, so much so that a neighborly police offcer would routinely bring him home, much to the consternation of his parents.

His mother prayed for him, his father punished him, but it was Louis’ older brother Pete who would be the catalyst in his life, turning the younger Zamperini around by encouraging him to be a long-distance runner, and providing him with a lifelong motto: “If you can take it, you can make it.”

The advice would serve Louis well in his life: through two aircraft crashes, while adrift in a life raft on the Pacific Ocean for 47 days, and as an American POW in Japanese prison camps.

The aircraft battles and crashes are well-executed, and his time on the raft with two other members of his flight team effectively convey the isolation and fear that confronted them.

Yet it’s his time as a POW that leaves the biggest scars — physical and mental — as Louis catches the eye of a sadistic Japanese sergeant known as “the Bird,” who wants to make an example of the American.

“You are like me. We are both strong. I saw it in your eyes the first day. I thought, this man would be my friend. But enemy of Japan, you do not listen. You do not do what is asked of you.”

The Bird tells Louis this just before ordering each prisoner to “punch this man in his face.”

Louis is beaten to a pulp but not broken, as will be the case over and over again as the Bird doles out punishments for cruel gratification and to assert dominance. Takamasa Ishihara plays the Bird, a role memorable for its plays the Bird, a role memorable for its cruelty, which is explained through a photograph Louis finds of the Japanese soldier as a young boy, standing next to a stern-looking father.

There’s no love between father and son, not unlike Louis and the Bird, whose tension carries the second half of the film and its traditional linear narrative, compared to the story-building first half, which bounces around through the important and necessary moments of Louis’ life.

It’s an ambitious script — polished by the Coen brothers — based on the difficult to adapt best-selling 2010 biography Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit).

Angelina Jolie directs her second film with a surprising amount of confidence considering the scale of this war epic. But there are some novice mistakes, including staging the final battle of wills between Louis and the Bird as a Rocky moment, complete with stirring music and overly sentimental flashbacks of Louis running. It’s effective propaganda for moviegoers, but also disingenuous to the real-life story.

O’Connell is formidable as Louis, but there’s little payoff to the POW’s ordeals other than to watch his steely resolve tested time and again. The man Louis would become isn’t in the film, but is mentioned only in passing in a brief summation of the next 60 years of his life just before the end credits.

Louis died in July at the age of 97, and we’re told of his post-traumatic stress struggles after the war and how his faith and forgiveness made him whole again. But not experiencing it on film shortchanges this film biography, and leaves out arguably the most important part of Louis’ story: not that he survived, but that he learned to live again.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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