July 2024

Unbroken (2014)

UNBROKEN [Movie Review]

DIRECTOR: Angelina Jolie

CAST: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, Miyavi


Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s second time in the director’s chair (following 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey), is a good-but-not-great docudrama adapted from the same-named non-fiction book by Lauren Hillenbrand (author of the less harrowing but similarly earnest and “inspiring true story” Seabiscuit) telling in competent but somewhat unremarkable fashion the true story of Olympic athlete and WWII POW Louis Zamperini.

Though interspersed with flashbacks sketching out his backstory, the meat of the narrative tells the harrowing WWII-era saga of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), which could aptly be summed up as “out of the frying pan and into the fire”, as within the span of a few months, he’s shot down on a bombing mission over the Pacific, spends six weeks languishing with two companions (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) in a life raft with scarce food or water and harassed by circling sharks, then is “rescued” by the Japanese, at whose hands he winds up in a prisoner-of-war camp run by the cruel Matsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Miyavi). Zamperini’s “celebrity” status as an Olympic athlete gets him singled out for Watanabe’s attention, and the more defiant and indomitable Zamperini’s spirit proves to be, the more Watanabe heaps on abuse. We periodically flashback to Louis’ childhood where the young Louis (C.J. Valleroy) is a juvenile delinquent and bullied for his Italian background, but becomes a record-breaking high school track athlete who ultimately competes in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The meat of the story, however, is his WWII trials and tribulations, from which, as the title indicates, he emerges bowed but unbroken.

One wonders whether Unbroken may have been stronger with a straightforward chronology, or if it focused more strongly on Zamperini’s WWII trials. While we mostly dispense with the flashbacks by the time he’s adrift at sea, there’s times when the cross-cutting interrupts the tension and momentum, as well as times, especially in the childhood-era flashbacks, when things verge too far into the earnest and sappy. The movie does a mostly accurate, sure-handed job of telling Zamperini’s true story, but a somewhat clinical and muted tone means it lacks a certain impact. When one of Zamperini’s surviving companions dies, for example, we don’t “feel” as much as one suspects Alexandre Desplat’s dramatic musical cues are telling us we’re supposed to. The screenplay was re-written by the Coen brothers from material by Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, but you wouldn’t know it from what’s onscreen, which has little of their discernible fingerprints on it, with the possible exception of one or two moments where a little gallows humor peeks through (when finally “rescued” by a Japanese warship, Louis turns to his companion and deadpans “I’ve got good news and bad news”).

Unbroken,' Directed by Angelina Jolie - The New York Times

Nonetheless, the movie on the whole is an admirable, if somewhat workmanlike, production. Production values and period details are strong, and the aerial combat scenes can stand as equally convincing alongside any war film that comes to mind. This was a passion project for second-time director Angelina Jolie, who had only one previous directing credit under her belt and lobbied hard for the opportunity, and her direction is sure-handed and technically accomplished (of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s aided by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins). Sequences like the “training montage”, “adrift at sea”, and the prisoner-of-war camp feel like scenes we’ve seen before that the movie doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself from. The movie arguably becomes more interesting, in fact, when “The Bird” makes his entrance and provides the movie with a singular visible “villain” and Zamperini with a nemesis. Watanabe is an insecure and petty bully, who like most bullies feels threatened by a stronger man, and his intensifying efforts to break down the indomitable Zamperini’s spirit carry a tinge of desperation.

Unbroken 2014, directed by Angelina Jolie | Film review

The acting is solid across-the-board, with no “big names” to distract from immersion. Relative unknown Jack O’Connell (who bears a resemblance to Anton Yelchin) gives a strong performance, and our lack of familiarity or preconceptions means we see him simply as Louis Zamperini. The supporting cast doesn’t include any overly familiar faces but a few whom some viewers might recognize, including Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock as Zamperini’s fellow plane crash surviving companions, Jai Courtney as Gleeson’s bomber co-pilot, and Garrett Hedlund as a fellow POW, but everyone apart from O’Connell is only onscreen for a segment of the journey and has limited screentime. One could argue that the standout in the supporting cast, in fact, is popular Japanese rock star Miyavi in his first acting appearance, who makes the sneering Watanabe a hissable nemesis (and one where the adherence to historical accuracy denies us any comeuppance for our “villain”).

Unbroken is a solid film but its somewhat muted tone and workmanlike presentation holds it back from greatness or a more powerful emotional impact. One is left with an admiration for Louis Zamperini’s indomitable spirit but not necessarily “feeling” it as forcefully as perhaps we should be.

* * *