Directed by: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund
Over the past couple of years it's become an annual tradition for stories of human endurance to hit cinema screens at this time of year, presumably because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences favours such movies. Two years ago we had Life of Pi and The Impossible, while last year gave us All is Lost, 12 Years a Slave and The Railway Man. (Meanwhile the Hobbit movies have served as an endurance test for viewers.) This year we have Unbroken, a movie that feels like a Greatest Hits of Human Endurance, giving us a compilation of moments not dissimilar to those seen in the aforementioned movies, like That's Entertainment for sado-masochists.
Jack O'Connell is Louis Zamperini, who competed in the 1936 Olympics as a distance runner, before his athletics career was cut short by the advent of World War II. When his plane crashed over the Pacific, Zamperini spent 47 days with two fellow crew members in a dinghy, a forgotten speck in a turbulent ocean. When they were discovered, it was by the enemy, and Zamperini spent over two years interned in POW camps on the Japanese mainland.
The opening act of the film quickly details Zamperini's turbulent childhood, when he is bullied for being an immigrant Italian and turns to a life of petty theft. Under his older brother's insistence, Zamperini joins the local running team, where he quickly rises to the top of the sport, leading to his participation in the 1936 Olympics. We're meant to presume his athletics background played a large part in Zamperini's ability to withstand his later wartime ordeal, but this segment is rushed through and never really shows us the young man pushing himself to succeed. Instead we get a handful of cheap slogans from his brother, like "If you can take it, you can make it," and "A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory."
The movie's most effective segment is its 'Lost at sea' chapter, as Zamperini and his fellow survivors attempt to make the best of their situation. The arrival of a Japanese bomber plane, which bizarrely goes out of its way to attack the men on the dinghy, steers the film into the realm of incredulity, where it unfortunately beds down for the remainder of its running time.
As a director, Angelina Jolie displays an eye for a set-piece, with an opening aerial battle that makes you wonder if the Force Awakens producers should have hired her instead of JJ Abrams, but her flair for the dramatic is at times counter-productive to her story-telling. Jolie shoots one particular moment from an angle that makes it clear a character couldn't possibly have survived an incident, only to later reveal that he's alive and well. This led me to wonder for a time if I was watching Zamperini interact with the imagined ghost of his fallen comrade, as the character seems to then disappear from the narrative at a later point, only to be all too conveniently reintroduced for a key dramatic moment later on.
The film's weakest segment is unfortunately its longest - that of Zamperini's time in the POW camps. Here he makes an enemy of a sadistic Japanese officer nicknamed 'The Bird', played by Miyavi, a Japanese popstar, just like Ryuichi Sakamoto in the similarly themed Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. No reason is given for The Bird's personal interest in Zamperini, but there is an undercurrent of homoeroticism, though I suspect this is unintentional on the filmmaker's part. Likewise, Zamperini's motivation for trouble-making is equally ambiguous. With so many questions raised by the odd actions of its characters, Unbroken isn't so much Bridge on the River Kwai as Bridge on the River Quoi?
For a long period of the film's final act we stray into the domain of torture porn as Zamperini is put through a series of increasingly sadistic ordeals, yet despite O'Connell's best efforts, we never get a real tactile sense of his suffering, and he seems almost superhuman in his ability to withstand physical pain and psychological torment. It's more The Labours of Hercules than The Stations of the Cross, and Jolie makes the amateur mistake of having a climactic scene revolve around Zamperini's ability to lift a heavy weight, a challenge the screen simply can't convey.
For all its premature Oscar buzz, Unbroken will most likely be remembered as the movie that broke O'Connell Stateside. 2014 has been quite a year for a young actor who previously seemed to be stuck in a rut, playing a series of chavvy thugs in movies like Eden Lake and Tower Block. If you only see one of his movies this year, Starred Up and '71 should be well ahead of this on your shortlist.
By Eric Hillis