Friday, January 2, 2015

Film Friday: Unbroken

Every so often, a book comes along that has sky-high expectations and it manages to surpass them. That was the case with Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 masterpiece, Unbroken. After my stepmom wouldn't stop raving about Edward Herrmann's performance on the audiobook version, I finally trudged down to Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena and bought it in hardcover, a rarity for me. I was afraid the book would be a letdown after all the hype and praise showered onto it. Thankfully, the book was thoroughly and utterly impressive.

I don't usually like to be overly effusive in reviews with platitudes like "mesmerizing" or "triumphant," but Unbroken got those raves from book critics around the world and then some and earned every single one. The story of Louie Zamperini's upbringing, harrowing survival through World War II including a plane crash and POW camp, plus his rocky return home are expertly detailed, with no stone left unturned and every last detail written with a strong sense of empathy. That's classic Hillenbrand and a style I've tried to emulate in my own writing, particularly in two feature series I was writing for the newspaper this past spring, coinciding with me reading her book.

When reading the book, there were many times when I would gasp at what was happening to Louie, scaring my roommate in the process, then laugh at a humorous paragraph the next page over. Hillenbrand perfectly captured Zamperini's ability to overcome the horrors he was experiencing and pursue life.

As I set out to write this review, I grabbed my copy of the book and perused through it again, the first time in nearly a year. My roommate walked by and said with some exasperation, "You're reading that again?" I answered, "I'm writing a review on it, but I'd absolutely reread this. You should try reading it some time."

The last two years, my yearly reading seemed to have one book act as the cannon that propelled reading through the year. In 2013, that book was Jurassic Park. In 2014, after a couple of misfires with other texts, it was Unbroken. Like a pace car leading the pack at the Indy 500, this was the book every other one in the year, fairly or unfairly, was trying to chase in terms of quality.

Grade: 5/5. Only the second book in 2014 to earn that rating, mostly because I try to be judicious in handing these out (some reviewers, particularly on Goodreads, hand them out like candy). The other is here.

One quick note: My condolences to the families of Louie Zamperini and Edward Herrmann. Zamperini was named the Grand Marshal of this year's Rose Parade, but passed away in July at the age of 97. His son Luke filled in at the parade. Louie was an avid University of Southern California Trojan alum and made frequent visits there in his later years. Herrmann passed away earlier this week at the age of 71. I didn't have the pleasure of listening to the audiobook version of Unbroken, but based on my stepmom's reaction to his narration and the many glowing reviews of it online, it will be a hallmark of his career, along with his other narrations and acting performances such as Gilmore Girls, for years to come.

During the Sochi Winter Olympics in February, NBC aired a teaser trailer for the film version of Unbroken narrated by former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw...

To say that I was excited for the movie would be an understatement. I figured that it'd be a long movie, since the book itself tops out at more than 400 pages (excluding notes). When the run time of 2 hours 17 minutes was announced, I admit, I was getting concerned. Critic ratings started pouring in on websites like Rotten Tomatoes and the early word wasn't good (it started at less than 50% on the Tomatometer and as of this writing, it's at 51%). My worries were starting to come true.

In terms of the film's craftsmanship, Unbroken is excellent, particularly the cinematography by Roger Deakins and musical score by Alexandre Desplat. The production design is sound and Jack O'Connell delivers a fine performance as Louie as does Miyavi as the villainous prison warden nicknamed "The Bird." Much has been made of Angelina Jolie directing and for the most part, I thought she did a capable job.

However, my main gripe with the film stems from one issue that manifests itself in two different ways. Louie's fellow prisoners are fully fleshed-out in the book, whereas in the movie, they are seldom discernible from one another. That's not to say they were poorly acted, but rather they just didn't have much to do or say to distinguish themselves as more than fellow POW's. I was willing to forgive this though because of the film's run time. Some things were going to get trimmed from the word go.

But some of the most powerful moments in the book were trimmed as well, namely Louie's return home and some of his Berlin Olympics hijinks. When Louie returned home from the war, life was not as rosy as the film's final shot made it appear (I sat there in the theater muttering to myself "Don't end it here, don't end it here," only to groan when the credits rolled). Louie hit rock bottom and his wife nearly left him, but managed to convince him to go to a Billy Graham revival that would change his life in more ways than one. This is partly what lead him to want to forgive his captors, which is hinted at briefly in the closing seconds of the movie, but could have been greatly expounded on.

Louie's son Luke wrote an online column explaining the film's ending and giving it his approval, particularly that the film wasn't "forcing (Louie's Christian faith) down people's throats," to quote Louie's autobiography Devil at My Heels. However, I respectfully contend that there had to be a happier medium between full-blown dogma and what was on the final cut. It's quite the jump to go from him returning home, then a title card explaining that he forgave his captors.

Grade: B-. It's not a bad movie per se, but as seems to be the case with most adaptations, my first recommendation is the book.

Have you seen or read Unbroken? What did you think?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, Andrew! I am looking forward to digging into the book sometime!