To paraphrase a popular saying: fact is often more inspirational than fiction. Seldom is that as true as in the case of Louis Zamperini, a US-born second generation Italian immigrant who overcame a troubled beginning to compete at the 1936 Berlin Olympics for America. For most people, that would be where the extraordinary part of their life ends, but Zamperini would later join the war effort in WWII and would survive having his bomber shot down, survive being lost at sea for 47 piteously grueling days, and survive being brutally tortured, both mentally and physically in a series of increasingly horrific Japanese POW camps for nearly two years. And still he survived.
If there’s one thing that Unbroken, the film adaptation of Zamperini’s life, gets right, it’s showcasing this indomitable human spirit. Stepping behind the camera as director for the second time in her career, Angelina Jolie builds up this inspirational story to almost mythic proportions, heavily laden with all the emotion that comes with it. This is a movie that doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, but only because its entire raiment is made of heart, sleeves and all.
Sometimes a little too much though, as Jolie’s directing and the screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen (yes, those Coen Bros.) and Richard LaGravenese (yes, that Richard LaGravenese) hits those predictable “human triumph” notes a little too often and too clumsily, lessening their impact with Hallmark card platitudes.
But despite its tonal missteps, there’s still quite a bit to recommend in Unbroken though, in particular it’s very strong dramatic performances. As the young Zamperini, Jack O’Connell completely reaffirms his “Next Big Thing” status by putting in a performance that’s both emotionally potent and physically demanding – he lost an emaciating 20 pounds for the role. And the same can be said for fellow rising star Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Zamperini’s friend and brother-in-arms, Russell “Phil” Phillips, as both are pushed to their method-acting limit by some of the arduous demands of the script.
They’re also joined by solid turns from Garret Hedlund, Jai Courtney and Finn Wittrock as fellow US soldiers and Japanese pop star Miyavi as “The Bird”, the sadistic and violent head of the prison camp. Recognizing Zamperini as an Olympic athlete and jealous of his achievements, The Bird digs his torturous claws into the already beaten down POW on a daily basis. Personally picked by Jolie to make his professional acting debut in this role, Miyavi turns in a performance that is all the more creepy and unnerving for how soft-spoken it often is, successfully turning The Bird into the monster the prisoners saw him as.
Along with several thespian highlights, the film also boasts some fine cinematography work from acclaimed veteran Roger Deakins, a regular collaborator with the Coen Bros. Able to find the beauty of a shot even amongst the horrors of war, Deakins is on superlative form here. And boosting those visuals is a rousing and moody score from another vaunted veteran in his craft Alexandre Desplat. By surrounding herself with such levels of experience, talent and accrued golden awards, Jolie certainly lightens her directing load considerably, but it’s still evident in a few select places that she hasn’t attained the filmmaking maturity to tell such a story wholly effectively just quite yet.
While the film is radiant with technical polish, and the early stages are often rousing – especially during a very proficiently engineered, epic aerial dog-fight – once the 2nd act torture of Zamperini at the hands of The Bird begins, the film becomes a bit one-note, to the point where it may be the audience feeling the torture of watching this young hero being physically broken yet again. This single-mindedness becomes especially grating when a closing epilogue reveals that after Zamperini’s hellish internment, there was still much more that happened in his life which could be used to drive home the same message of unrelenting strength of will and faith, but in much more varied and engaging manner.
With the clear talent both in front and behind the camera and with this singularly remarkable parable as its source material, this sophomore directing gig from Jolie has all the ingredients to be great, but its these storytelling foibles that keep it at merely good, even if Jolie and co should definitely be applauded for their well-meaning efforts.
Last Updated: January 15, 2015