Unbroken ****

Is it worth $10? Yes

Indomitable human spirit is on full display in “Unbroken,” and the result is one of the best films of 2014. It’s cliché to describe a movie as inspiring, but if this doesn’t convince you of the power of sheer determination and to live life to the fullest, nothing will.

"Unbroken," based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand (“Seabiscuit”), tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, a record-setting high school track star turned Olympian turned World War II hero. It’s not the accolades themselves that are the most impressive – it’s the way they were achieved that will turn heads and open hearts.

As a child, Louis is a scamp. But his brother Pete (Alex Russell) gets him into track and field, and soon Louis (Jack O’Connell) sets a national high school record and is competing in the ’36 Berlin Olympics. When the war comes Louis joins the Air Force and is a bombardier in the Pacific, which is where his plane crashes due to engine failure. Stranded on a lifeboat with fellow soldiers Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock), they battle sharks, weather and enemy ships before being captured and taken to a Japanese POW camp.

Sometimes when a situation goes from bad to worse it can almost feel comical, but there’s none of that here. This is a straight drama with minimal comic relief. Louis – who becomes the target of torment for a Japanese officer nicknamed the “Bird” (Miyavi) – seems to get stronger with greater adversity, and as we see him continually get knocked down and back up again even the hardest of hearts will have trouble not being moved by his courage.

Consider: At any point after he’s stranded on the lifeboat Louis could’ve freaked out, given up and wanted to die already, and it would’ve been hard to blame him. But it’s always Louis who keeps his head, doesn’t let others get too far down and is willing to absorb the brunt of the punishment. He’s a born leader.

So how did the directorially inexperienced Angelina Jolie accomplish such a stellar piece of filmmaking? She had tremendous passion and vision for the project, and perhaps more importantly surrounded herself with some of the top talent in the business. Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo”) and Richard LaGravanese (“The Fisher King”) wrote the script, the great Roger Deakins (“Skyfall”) was the cinematographer and Alexandre Desplat (“The King’s Speech”) created the emotional musical score. When you have proven veterans who know how to do it right it’s a tremendous asset, and no doubt Jolie trusted her collaborators to be on top of their game. And they are.

“Unbroken” isn’t perfect – a better sense of elapsing time would’ve assisted overall comprehension and appreciation for Louis’ peril – but it is extremely captivating. Just don’t get too carried away with believing everything you’re seeing really happened. The credits come with the standard disclaimer that some characters were composited or invented, and that “a number of incidents [were] fictionalized.”

Does this matter? I don’t think so. Jolie’s responsibility is to tell the story as well as she can, and sometimes reality doesn’t mesh well with narrative clarity, so filling in blanks becomes necessary. What ultimately matters, remember, is the final result on screen and our reaction to it, and the results are startling. Expect to see “Unbroken” as a major player on Oscar night.

Did you know?
Louis Zamperini died in July 2, 2014; he was 97. Jolie said she was able to show him some scenes from the film before his death.

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