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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Unbroken, Review: Life of Pi meets Bhag Milkha Bhag meets Forrest Gump

Unbroken, Review: Life of Pi meets Bhag Milkha Bhag meets Forrest Gump

I know, Milkha was a real character and the others are fictional, so where does Unbroken meet these other three? Endurance against all odds at sea was seen in Pi, a small-town boy running for international glory was Milkha and Forrest Gump too ran a similar trail, albeit with the added dimension of a man having a mental condition. In the end, we will have to give it to Unbroken for originality, because it is largely true to the true story it is based on. The film is not easy viewing--extremely tortuous and exceedingly sadistic. Who best to tell you what it is all about but Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption’s author, Laura Hillenbrand?

“Eight years ago, an old man told me a story that took my breath away. His name was Louie Zamperini, and from the day I first spoke to him, his almost incomprehensibly dramatic life was my obsession. Growing up in California in the 1920s, Louie was a hell-raiser, stealing everything edible that he could carry, staging elaborate pranks, getting in fist-fights, and bedeviling the local police. But as a teenager, he emerged as one of the greatest runners America had ever seen, competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he put on a sensational performance. He was preparing for the 1940 Olympics, and closing in on the fabled four-minute mile, when World War II began. Louie joined the Army Air Corps, becoming a bombardier. Stationed on Oahu, he survived harrowing combat, including an epic air battle that ended when his plane crash-landed, some six hundred holes in its fuselage and half the crew seriously wounded. On a May afternoon in 1943, Louie took off on a search mission for a lost plane. Somewhere over the Pacific, the engines on his bomber failed. The plane plummeted into the sea, leaving Louie and two other men stranded on a tiny raft. Drifting for weeks and thousands of miles, they endured starvation and desperate thirst, sharks that leapt aboard the raft, trying to drag them off, a machine-gun attack from a Japanese bomber, and a typhoon with waves some forty feet high. At last, they spotted an island. As they rowed toward it, unbeknownst to them, a Japanese military boat was lurking nearby. Louie’s journey had only just begun.” (The real Louie died at the age of 97, in July last year).

For the screen, the book went through four writers: playwright William Nicholson, Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, Beyond the Candelabra) and the famous Coen Brothers’, whose work Jolie admires. Her favourite Coen Brothers’ film is No Country for Old Men. “But what I love about them is how diverse they are. I loved when Brad did Burn After Reading, and I was with Billy [Bob Thornton] when he did The Man Who Wasn't There. They have a signature and a certain flavour, but their films are so different. One can be so full of humour, and the next can be so frightening, but you always know going into a Coen Brothers’ movie that it'll be something special.”

Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey) directs, but does not act. There is only one role of any significance, and Jolie would not have wanted to play Louie’s mother, would she? One can as well ask why is Brad not pitted against any of the characters, but there is a film coming up called By the Sea, where the two star and she directs. There is little evidence of feminine gentility. Yes, the childhood pranks and the mother’s persona are handled with a gentle woman’s touch. And then it’s gore and violence and sadism and bathos and revulsion and morbidity. In the sub-title, Hillenbrand sums it up well—survival, resilience and redemption. Maybe because she is not religious herself, Jolie merely skims the redemption angle and stays focused on survival and resilience. Viewers’ patience and the characters’ survival against all odds (no cliché) are tested for a large chunk of the footage. Compared to what the soldiers undergo at sea and in the Japanese Prisoner of War (POW) camps, the motto mouthed by Louie’s brother to egg him on, “If you can take it, you can make it,” sounds puerile.

The British actor Jack O’Connell, who plays Zamperini, wasn’t the studio’s preferred choice, but Jolie fought for him. After completing the film, she said, “You should be proud of him in London. It would be hard for you to find more of a fan of Jack than myself. I am in awe of him--he’s an extremely impressive actor.” Impressive he is. Japanese Guitarist Takamasa Mishihara ‘Miyavi’ as ‘The Bird’ Watanabe has a presence that does not seem to go with his fanatically sadistic streak, though he does try to add some dead-pan menace. Occupational hazard of casting a good-looking rock-star as Mr. Basher Lasher. The script does not find it necessary to give him any motive for his obsessive brutality, targeted against only one POW. Domnhall Gleeson as Phil and Garrett Hedlund (Tron Legacy) as Russell are good. In the short tenure she is allowed, the actress playing Louie’s mother is deeply convincing and a complete natural.

There is little or no swearing, sex is all but absent, smiles are miles apart, and almost all happiness is tinged with despair. Some solid redemption in the end could have made it more palatable. Like the three stranded protagonists who live on only because their deaths were not destined, you tend to get carried away in the same cinematic life-boat, till some real cinema surfaces. When it does, it takes the film ashore, but the heroes’ welcome proves elusive.

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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