Directed by Angelina Jolie.
Starring Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Jai Courtney, Alex Russell, Finn Wittrock, Garrett Hedlund and Luke Treadaway.
After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
When reviewing a film based on a true story, especially one as harrowing as a prisoner of war tale, you have to separate reality from film making. The story of Louis Zamperini’s survival against the odds during World War II is, on its own, one to be greatly admired but this movie version of his story offers precious little to admire as far as film making is concerned.
The question I kept asking whilst watching Unbroken was ‘why this man’s story?’ and I assumed that something would happen in the 137 minutes which would give me the answer, but nothing substantial ever materialises. Even with four Oscar winning or nominated writers, including Joel and Ethan Coen, the screenplay and story is an uneven mishmash of flashback, biopic, and war drama which is never sure of the direction it wants to go in, so goes in all directions in the hope that some will find it compelling. I rarely did because it offers nothing new to any of the genres it attempts to work in.
The major flaw is that, despite surviving two years in POW camp, the film fails to make Zamperini’s story compelling aside from the obvious reason that he survived; this film gives no reason why his story is worth making into a Hollywood production with talent oozing in every department. Director Angelina Jolie shows us the brutality of a Japanese POW camp over and over and over again to the point that we become numbed by the repetitiveness and not the content which is a huge failing on her part; what her movie fails to get across is why we are watching his story and not the story of any number of soldiers in the same camp. Yes, he was an Olympic athlete before the war but of what relevance is that to this story? What makes him any different from a soldier who was a teacher, baker, or mechanic? According to this film, the answer is nothing. So why are we watching? If Zamperini went on to become an athlete after the war and break records and win medals, then perhaps the story would hold some interest.
Again, these are issues with the shortcomings of the film, and in no way a comment on the life of Zamperini or any other soldier. I’m sure he deserved more than this glossy but empty adaptation.
One compelling reason to tell Zamperini’s story comes from the 47 days he and two other soldiers spent in a life raft in the Pacific Ocean. This section of the film is interesting if not particularly compelling; the 47 days feels very rushed as if it were a week at most (which would still have been awful, of course) but this film doesn’t have the patience to keep the audience at sea with the men for any longer than is necessary, and favours beatings and making us hate the Japanese camp leader like a pantomime villain. The man is unquestionably evil, as anyone who holds anyone else in a POW camp is, but he is written like a stereotype rather for us to hate him and serves no other function than that.
To say Roger Deakins’ photography is sublime throughout will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with this outstanding contribution to cinema and he makes the film worth watching from a purely visual aspect. In the scenes in a coal mine POW camp you can almost taste the filth and feel the layers of grime on your skin, whilst in the sequences at sea look so different in terms of colour pallet and lens choice gives sense of claustrophobia despite the never-ending ocean all around. Jolie’s direction is most impressive during the film’s only standout sequence which shows an aerial battle from within Zamperini’s plane; her tight framing traps us in the cockpit with the crew and is an exhilarating and original way to shoot such a battle. The rest of the film is fairly safe and traditionally shot, reminding me of a modern Clint Eastwood picture but one of his weaker efforts like Flags of Our Fathers rather than his best work such as Letters from Iwo Jima.
Despite focusing on similar themes to Jolie’s directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey, this, her second feature, lacks the grit and unflinching harsh realities of war of that Balkan-set drama. It shows beatings but never in a way which gets a reaction, and it asks us to be shocked and saddened but it doesn’t earn these emotions from the film making, only from our own sympathies which would be equally felt from watching a History Channel documentary.
A film which sprang to my mind whilst watching this was The Railway Man, released and mostly overlooked earlier in 2014. Although by no means an outstanding film, what The Railway Man did right was showing the audience a story which perhaps we hadn’t seen before where a POW survivor goes back to the camp decades later to confront his former captor. That film also had flashback sequences of torture and cruelty but this paid off by forming a character of the captor and giving the survivor’s story a reason for being made into a film worth watching. In Unbroken the screenplay is obsessed with showing violence (and in ways we’ve seen numerous times before) but has absolutely nothing to say about it.
Perhaps the most grievous offence is left until the final few minutes where, once the war is declared over Zamperini’s life for the next 70 years is neatly wrapped up in a few epilogue texts and a nice picture of the man himself. If that is all his life after the war is worthy of, then Unbroken cements its purpose for existing as solely to show pain and suffering and fool some audiences into thinking they’ve watched a film worthy of an inspirational man’s life.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.