For a while Unbroken has been hailed as one of the potential best films of 2014 and a strong Oscar contender. It tells the extraordinary story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) who was not only an Olympic athlete, but also fought in WWII where after an almost-fatal plane crash survived 47 days in a raft at sea only to then be captured by Japanese troops and send to a prisoner-of-war camp. His tale is an inspirational one and ripe for all those acclaims people were throwing at the film. But after having watched said film, you will find that no matter how great Zamperini life was the film itself is a dull and over-long affair.
Directed by Angelina Jolie, I guess I should commend her for taking on such a complex subject matter and as a whole delivering a cohesive film. The problem here is that she is not a very interesting director and as such her handle on the story is exceedingly conventional. From a technical standpoint nothing really stands out, instead what we get is a construction of scenes that mirror every other war film done before. The flashback-ridden beginning feels disjointed as if the film were rushing to cover all the bases. Worse is that those peeks at Zamperini's early days barely give us an idea of who the character is. Unbroken is a visually numb film and that numbness is compounded by the over-use of silence that effectively dulls you out. Alexandre Desplat turned in a score that resembles his score for The Tree of Life, which in here simply disappears in the overall silence and does more harm than anything else.
Story-wise, I believe the film somewhat fails, simply because we aren’t given much reason to really care about Louis Zamperini. We barely spend any time with the character before he is plunged into these extreme circumstances. His survival at sea and his time in the prison camp encompass most of the film’s running time, and throughout these events Zamperini behaves almost like a saint. He is good, honourable and prone to sacrifice himself for others. Now I’m not saying there aren’t people like, but because the film doesn’t show us any contrast or flaws in the character beyond a few short flashback minutes at the beginning, Zamperini comes off looking too Jesus-like. It’s hard to relate with someone like that, his depiction is too idealistic to the point where he doesn’t even feel human. I think if the film had spend more time in the beginning establishing the character, all those torture scenes later on would’ve had a much greater visceral impact as opposed to the superficial impact they actually have. As it stands, Unbroken feels more like we’re watching Jesus in a different era.
Newcomer Jack O’Connell plays Jack O’Connell and likewise, I’ll commend his dedication to the performance. He slims down to portray the famine Zamperini experienced during his days at sea and he takes a serious beating during the prison camp sequences. He delivers an effective performance albeit one that does not standout. There is a lack of charisma and he does not command the screen as much as the filmmakers might’ve hoped so. I suppose his underwhelming performance stems more from the fact that, again, the film just throws the character into extreme situations without spending any time shaping and developing the character. O’Connell is easily overshadowed by his supporting cast, especially by Domhnall Gleeson who plays Zamperini’s surviving partner Phil and Takama Ishihara who plays the commanding officer in the prisoner camp. Ishihara in particular is the one that delivers the breakout performance of the film. His villainous character is much more interesting from his ruthlessness to the brief moments where his shell shatters. He gives us more things to think about and an inner conflict that made me want to know more about him.
Unbroken is by no means a terrible film. It is fine albeit forgettable. One can tell that Angelina Jolie’s goal with this picture was to make it as inspirational as possible and the overall message is an important one. Louis Zamperini survived all of these terrible things and came out of them not vengeful but with a profound understanding of the world and humanity. Forgiveness and living your life as best you can are much greater than violence and resentment. In this writer’s opinion, the film could’ve delivered this message without verging on overt idealism. I think it would’ve been more powerful to show how a flawed Zamperini become such a beacon of goodness. Having now seen two films directed by Angelina Jolie, I have a better understanding of the type of director she is. It feels like she takes on these heavy and interesting subject matters to compensate for the fact that as a director she is utterly prosaic. We’ll see if her next film with Brad Pitt will continue the trend.