Unbroken

Review by David Ehrlich @davidehrlich

Directed by

Angelina Jolie-Pitt

Starring

Domhnall Gleeson Jack O’Connell Jai Courtney

Anticipation.

A bigger, better chance to see if Angelina Jolie can be as interesting behind the camera as she is in front of it.

Enjoyment.

If this story is so incredible, why does it feel like we’ve seen it before?

In Retrospect.

Jolie might be a good director, but she still hasn’t directed anything good.

Angelina Jolie takes to the director’s chair and is overwhelmed by her deity-like subject in this glossy, unexceptional awards-baiter.

By the time Unbroken limps towards the finish line, director Angelina Jolie has convincingly made the case that a dozen great movies could be made about the extraordinary life of Louis “Louie” Zamperini. The folly of this bland and broadly forgettable version is that it tries to be all of them.

Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption’ (Kate Upton’s favourite book, FYI), Jolie’s third feature is a biopic that’s paralysed by the awe it bears for its subject, and it’s not hard to understand why. A scrappy upstate New Yorker born to Italian immigrants in January of 1917, Zamperini was a bullied teenager who, in order to make it through his adolescence in one piece, remade himself as a lightweight boxer. But that wasn’t meant to be — Zamperini soon learned that not fighting is better than losing, and remade himself once more as a runner. Shortly after graduating high school, he became the youngest American to ever qualify for the 5,000-meter race at the Olympics.

In 1941, Zamperini enlisted in the Air Force, and in 1943, the plane on which he was serving as a second lieutenant crashed into the Pacific Ocean 850 miles south of Oahu. Zamperini was one of three men to survive the event, and one of two to make it through the 47 days of being stranded at sea that followed. “Rescued” by a Japanese naval unit, the two Americans were then detained in a variety of POW camps, where they did not have fun. Zamperini wouldn’t only survive the war, he would live long enough to be rewarded with a second interview slot on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (so don’t accuse America of not properly honouring its heroes).

Zamperini’s story is too incredible to be fiction, but its telling smacks of artifice. The kind of film in which the events described by the closing title cards are far more interesting than anything in the film itself, Unbroken begins by underlining the profundity of Zamperini’s journey, only to slowly reduce the man to the values he embodies over the course of an increasingly dull would-be epic. The script (burnished by the Coen brothers) doesn’t give him much to work with, but rising star Jack O’Connell (Starred Up, ’71) is well cast as the undersized hero, imbuing Zamperini with a mix of fiery determination and blue-collar vulnerability that works in all of the character’s various states of duress. Both the actor and the film are at their best during the early going, in which Zamperini and his band of brothers try to stay aloft in the flying scrapheaps they’re forced to fly. It’s these sequences, which maintain a naturalistic tone despite dabbles of glaringly fake CG, in which Jolie makes her most compelling case as a filmmaker — if little else, she possesses a Fordian flair for emotionally motivated action.

Unfortunately, Jolie’s strengths (which make her seem a better fit for a mid-budget suspense thriller than they do a bleeding hunk of Oscar chum) were undermined by her weaknesses by the time she first arrived on set. It’s not her competency that’s the problem, it’s her instincts. Jolie submits to convention by pausing Zamperini’s military adventures in order to flashback to his formative years as a burgeoning track star, but fails to accomplish anything with these scenes beyond underlining the runner’s fame. Obviously the same underdog resilience that made Zamperini an unlikely Olympic contender resurfaces during his wartime ordeal, but the film reveres his can-do exceptionalism like it’s a birthright, like he’s simply better than his less fortunate comrades.

The sadistic Japanese torturer who toys with Zamperini certainly feels the same way. Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (played by pop star Miyavi) ruthlessly antagonises his prized American charge, but the character is more defined by his youthfulness than his violence. A shallow character, quickly forgotten as soon as Jolie’s camera diverts its attention from him, The Bird’s boyishness nevertheless reflects just how young all of these men are, the structure of the film around them mistakenly insisting that their formative years are behind them (whatever issues Jolie might have with her instincts, she continues to show a keen eye for her selecting her cast and collaborators).

A missed opportunity for a more nuanced window to the war, the characters’ ages, along with their inability to make meaningful choices, makes Unbroken feel like a YA adaptation of a more adult story, the Hunger Games to Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’s Battle Royale. Ultimately, Miyavi’s performance can do little to save the scenes at the various POW camps from blending together into an experience as pointless and protracted as war, itself. Everything about Unbroken (including Alexandre Desplat’s score, stirring but out of place) is tilted towards making Zamperini’s life feel like the incredible journey that it was, but in reducing such an unfathomable story into a basic narrative of triumph, Jolie’s film ultimately makes it feel… ordinary.

Published 11 Dec 2014

Anticipation.

A bigger, better chance to see if Angelina Jolie can be as interesting behind the camera as she is in front of it.

Enjoyment.

If this story is so incredible, why does it feel like we’ve seen it before?

In Retrospect.

Jolie might be a good director, but she still hasn’t directed anything good.

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