Unbroken review

>A World War Two tale of indomitable courage and endurance that’s to be endured rather than enjoyed, Angelina Jolie’s handsome and underwhelming Unbroken, the true life tale of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini’s wartime experiences as a POW after being captured by the Japanese, disappoints by being rather too reverent, too in awe of its subject and ending just as Zamperini, played here by the phenomenal Jack O’Connell, was entering arguably the most interesting phase of his life.

While on a routine mission to find a lost air crew who were forced to ditch in the Pacific, Zamperini’s bomber itself developed engine trouble and crashed in the Ocean, killing eight of the eleven-man crew with only Zamperini and best bud Phil (Domhnal Gleeson) along with the obviously doomed Mac (Finn Whittrock) managing to make it to a flimsy inflatable life raft.

Adrift in the open water, they face starvation, thirst, storms, shark attacks and being strafed by enemy planes, surviving on rationed chocolate and the raw fish they manage to catch for 47 excruciatingly long days. At some point Mac dies and they reverently wrap him up and throw him over the side rather than eat him, proving they couldn’t have been that hungry.

Eventually the friends are picked up by a passing Japanese patrol boat and Zamperini’s real ordeal begins. Beaten and interrogated by their captors, Zamperini and Phil are transported to mainland Japan where they are cruelly separated, Zamperini ending up at a harsh prison camp presided over by a brutal guard the prisoners nickname ‘the Bird’ (J-pop superstar and samurai guitarist Miyavi) who takes a special interest in the quietly defiant Zamperini. Determined to crack him, the Bird mercilessly persecutes Zamperini, subjecting him to daily beatings and torture but through it all Zamperini remains unbroken.

There’s a moment right at the start of Jolie’s Unbroken that makes your heart soar with hope, the hope that the film isn’t going to be just another lushly photographed, stirring, noble bio-pic: a squadron of (admittedly CGI) bombers flies out of the sun towards us on a raid and almost immediately we are inside the aircraft with bombardier Zamperini as he coolly lines up his sights on target, ignoring the flak exploding around his plane and the attacking Japanese fighters buzzing around like hornets. He drops his deadly payload, obliterating his target. The fighters pepper the plane with machine gun fire, bullets ripping through the fuselage and through his comrades as they return fire, hot shells tinkling around Zamperini as he tries to close the bomb bay doors and comfort a mortally wounded buddy. It’s a gripping sequence, the tension amplified by never really leaving the hot, claustrophobic interior of the bomber, the sound design, composition and editing placing us directly inside Zamperini’s head.

And then the plane lands and, barring one knuckle-whitening crash sequence later in the film, Unbroken never again soars, Jolie juxtaposing Zamperini’s wartime experiences with nostalgic, golden-hued flashbacks of our young hero, bullet pointing his life as a teenage tearaway whose wiser older brother teaches him the error of his ways and he redeems himself by joining the high school running team and representing the USA at the 1936 Berlin Olympics where we get to see the back of Jesse Owens head but strangely not the moment when Zamperini got to shake hands with Hitler. Meanwhile the electric O’Connell as the adult Zamperini suffers manfully, repeating the litany taught to him by the aforementioned big brother: “If I can take it, I can make it.” And take it he does, soaking up every PG-13 rated punishment visited on him, every beating, every degradation, until emerging triumphant like a G.I. Christ. Despite the Coen Brothers and Richard LaGravenese contributing to the script, subtle Unbroken ain’t.

O’Connell as ever holds the eye but Zamperini is perhaps too passive a character to do his talents justice and the rest of the cast have little to work with Harry Treadaway and Garrett Hedlund particularly ill-served by the clichéd cardboard cutouts they play in the film’s interminably long prison camp scenes which fall far short of the touchstones of Bridge On The River Kwai, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence or A Town Like Alice or even the BBC’s Tenko and Jolie leaves unexplored the homoeroticism of the Bird’s fascination with Zamperini and his almost masochistic desire for punishment though only Japanese pop star Miyavi gives O’Connell a run for his money as his vain, preening, sadistic tormentor, a petulant child wielding the power of life and death.

Perhaps the biggest disservice the film does Zamperini however is that at 2 and a quarter hours the film feels baggy, flabby, overlong yet strangely not long enough, failing to do justice to its protagonist’s life, dwelling on the hardships he endured in the Pacific while merely offering a brief coda of his life after the war; his self-destructiveness, his embracing of evangelical Christianity, his experiences in post-war Japan first giving evidence against his former tormentors, then forgiving them and eventually ministering to them. A more ambitious filmmaker might have made this strand of his life the backbone of the film, Jolie instead relegates it to a couple of titles at the end before we see the 81-year-old Zamperini carry the Olympic torch through Japan in 1998. And she sets it to a bloody Coldplay song which encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the film; its big and lush and tugs at your heartstrings but ultimately it fails to move you. As you watch Unbroken just keep repeating to yourself “If I can take it, I can make it.”

Unbroken at IMDb

Mark Searby is a Screenjabber contributor

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