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Bowed, but ‘Unbroken,’ the story of WNY native Louis Zamperini

He was born here – and he was a hero.

The movie version of “Unbroken” – a film directed by Angelina Jolie and based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand – tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a Western New York native who had an eventful, heroic life.

Zamperini started out as a runner – but his life took a dramatic turn, from track star to tortured POW.

“Unbroken” is a good movie and it does Zamperini proud.

Even more than that, it’s a story that demands to be seen.

Zamperini, who died earlier this year at 97, was born in Olean. When he was about 2, his family moved to California, where he grew up as a scrappy kid who was the target of bullies.

Louie’s older brother introduced him to running. The young Louie flourished, becoming one of the top track athletes in the United States. In 1936, he competed in the Olympics.

Zamperini, played in Jolie’s comprehensive movie by Jack O’Connell, was every bit the sports star in his day.

Perhaps to its detriment, however, Zamperini’s early life is somewhat glossed over in the film.

We see young Louie in church, listening to a sermon. We see him running from a police officer. We see him with his family at home – his disciplining father, his prayerful mother. (Jolie’s decision to use subtitles in some of these scenes with the Italian-American Zamperini family seems unnecessary.)

Then, we see Louie discovering the first important part of his life: running.

Athletics is the first way in which the young Louie sets himself apart. He makes himself different – because he is fast. But it does him no good, with the outbreak of war.

Zamperini joins the Army and becomes a bombardier, flying missions in the Pacific.

The experiences of Zamperini during World War II are difficult and tortuous. He crashes into the Pacific and must survive on a raft with his crewmates. He is taken to a Japanese prison camp, where the treatment is brutal.

Jolie’s “Unbroken” shows viewers savage beatings of captured American soldiers, and miserable quarters, and latrine-cleaning duty – as well as small details, in the men’s conversations and attitudes.

The story is more than just sad – it’s awful to watch.

But the experiences of real POWs in Japanese camps were far more horrifying and life-changing. We understand, looking at the actors here, that the faces and bodies of real POWs would have looked much worse than what the film shows.

The palette of Jolie’s film is largely muted, restrained. When Zamperini races in a track meet, early in the film, the dresses of the young women who cheer for him are of the palest hues. Buildings in a Japanese prison yard are bleached and weathered. The faces of Zamperini and his crewmates in the raft become sun-scarred, blending in to the color of their sea-corroded uniforms. Carrying coal in one camp, the men become covered in thick black dust.

One begins to see how repetitive much of this could be: the metallic gray of planes, the landscape often unvarying.

The spots of strong color in the movie thus strike with doubled impact: the garish yellow raft that Zamperini and his crewmates cling to, against a rolling green sea, for instance, or the deep rose color of the plush robe that Zamperini’s mother wears in one scene in their home.

If you watch this film with any knowledge of what U.S. soldiers in the Pacific Theater strove to overcome, the smallest of details will touch your heart.

In the 1946 film “The Best Years of Our Lives,” many audiences saw small scenes, little moments about the war and its staggering, silent effects on average American men and women, like a former soldier learning to live with his injuries.

“Unbroken” continues that sad tradition. It isn’t perfect. But for many, the emotion it brings will be in those tiny moments of human connection.



3.5 stars (Out of four)

Starring Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Jai Courtney, Finn Wittrock and Garrett Hedlund. Directed by Angelina Jolie. 137 minutes.

Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and brief language. Opens Thursday.

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