With her first widely released directorial debut, Angelina Jolie tells the All-American story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic-runner turned bombardier made castaway and prisoner of war. After purchasing the rights to his story, Universal went through decades of production hell to bring it to the screen. Tony Curtis of Some Like it Hot fame was originally in talks to portray the Olympian, illustrating truly how long this film has been in the works. Universal pictures finally green-lit the production after Jolie took the helm as a team of screenwriters (including the Coen Brothers) ironed out the structure. After telling such a remarkable story of perseverance, it seems fitting that the film also had its own trials. Unfortunately, perhaps because of all those involved in finally getting to tell Louis Zamperini’s story, the film lacks character, both in content and execution. A reverent salute to the man who suffered so much for his country, Unbroken has a big heart but not nearly enough spirit.
With a brilliantly unpredictable dogfight, Jolie starts the film with a literal series of bangs. However, halfway through the zooms and kabooms, the film cuts back to Zamperini’s troubled childhood. Ostracised for his Italian background and beaten by his father for his troublemaking, Lou is the typical no-good, whisky-sippin’, street-fightin’ urchin. Then, in a knock-off Forest Gump turn of events, he discovers he has an uncommon aptitude for sprinting. A few years pass, and as a result of rigorous training, Lou leaves his family after qualifying for the Olympic games. Unfortunately, these flashback sequences fail to solidify any emotional grounding, mostly due to Lou’s painfully watery cypher of a brother who speaks exclusively in pulpy motivational slogans. Despite trying to be a very real film, these saccharine scenes undermine the emotional impact of Zamperini’s backstory, a major flaw given the gruelling acts to follow.
Back in the B-24, the plane’s engines fail mid-air, leaving only the pilot ‘Phil’ (A particularly stirring performance from Domhnall Gleeson), gunner ‘Mac’ (Finn Wittrock), and Zamperini alive. Left to float for weeks in the Pacific, their drifting conversations are among some of the film’s best scenes, and the Coen brothers’ dialogue shines. Wrestling sharks and sipping rainwater to stay alive, they are picked up by Japanese marines and interned as prisoners of war in Tokyo. Under the vindictive watch of Mutsushiro Watanabe (Miyavi), known more infamously as ‘The Bird’, Lou suffers flinch-worthy abuse but, as the title suggests, he never breaks under the strain.
To the film’s credit, despite such an Americana-fuelled tale, there is no obvious moral binary imposed on the Japanese and American soldiers. Though not quite sympathetic to the Japanese cause, the depiction of Watanabe’s character comes across as tragic, especially in the final scenes. Depicting a war-torn Tokyo, Unbroken is not a film that casts judgement, which does add significantly to its sense of realism.
During its London premier, Jolie expressed hope that the film presents a story in which every audience members can see themselves reflected. Unfortunately, this could not really be further from the truth. Zamperini’s problematic depiction as a Christ figure, most obviously on the film’s poster, makes him nearly superhuman with no humanising flaws. His humour and light demeanour help him through early obstacles, but are gapingly absent in the final act, replaced by soporific snarling and wrenching strain. Though a prominent theme throughout, the film’s depiction of faith appears shoehorned and disappointingly superficial. Failing to build to a compelling crescendo, many of these problems stem back to a poorly developed first act. Much of the film is a slog, and not nearly as inspiring or rousing as it obviously set out to be.
In a year rife with award-bait biopics (Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Foxcatcher to name a few), Unbroken has many rivals and a number of betters. As a film, it feels like an inconsistent combination of Forest Gump without the social commentary, Saving Private Ryan without the characters, The Great Escape without the heart, and Castaway without the volleyball. Jack O’Connell demonstrates a remarkable leading performance, even with few opportunities to do much more than grimace (though, the role itself is evidence of his spectacular range). Watching the final footage of Louis Zamperini running an Olympic torch through the streets of Nagaro in 1998, smiling and waving to the camera, I couldn’t help but feel that Unbroken had lost the detail of the man despite immortalising his spirit.