Story of Louis Zamperini gets sumptuous treatment in dramatically uneven retelling of his World War II ordeal.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 135 minutes
Life is what happens while some are just trying to survive. In Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s epic, ambitious but also commendably restrained retelling of the life of Louis Zamparini, the canvas is vast and so, too, is the range of pain inflicted on a young man during wartime. Jolie proves to be enormously talented as a storyteller, but unfortunately the film is preoccupied with showing us that everybody has their reasons. In so doing, and by watering down the violence and bloodshed, it also commits the indefensible sin of downplaying the horrors of war.
Zamparini’s life was filled with good fortune but also a great deal of physical suffering at the hands of his captors, and the desire to survive obviously makes him a heroic character that deserves the big-screen treatment. The film plays it safe throughout, making sure to achieve nothing higher than a PG-13 rating by having children-friendly dialogue and restraining its depiction of violence; however, in its final moments it goes for broke by clearly drawing a visual parallel to Jesus Christ on the cross, and the absurdity of this comparison leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
British actor Jack O’Connell does a fine job in the lead, his clean-cut face serving him well as both the romantic representation of the wholesome American and ultimately as the object of sadistic affection of one of his detention camp guards in Japan, the feared Matsushiro Watanabe, better known as “The Bird” (Takamasa Ishihara).
The first half of Unbroken opens above the Pacific Ocean, aboard a B-52 bomber during the Second World War, where Zamperini is in charge of dropping the bombs at exactly the right moments. There are some hairy situations with the boys in the aircrew nearly losing their lives, and at the most dramatic point in the scene, the film cuts back to Zamperini’s early childhood in Torrance, California, with his Italian immigrant family. He was headed towards teenage delinquency when his older brother noticed how fast he can run, and suddenly, in a jump cut that comes as no surprise, we see him running as a teenager who has turned into an athlete of some renown.
After a few more scenes during the Second World War, we get yet another flashback to Zamperini’s early years, during which he sets off to compete in the Olympics in Berlin, Nazi Germany. This section of the film is magnificent, not only because of the overwhelming success of director of photography Roger Deakins in recreating the feeling of being inside the enormous arena, but also because of the subtle but powerful moment that is so brief the viewer might miss it on the first viewing: When all the athletes gather inside the stadium and the cauldron is lit, Zamperini looks behind him and sees a Japanese athlete looking back at him. They smile at each other in sportsmanlike camaraderie, both elated to participate at the highest level of their game. But as we watch them, the dramatic irony is evident as the bloody United States–Japan war scenes from earlier in the film still ring in our heads.
Once we return to the battlefield, we stay there, and it is a never-ending parade of misery for the poor Zamperini, who spends weeks on the open sea before being taken captive and held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese until after the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The quick pace of the first half slows down significantly in the second, as the screenplay focuses intently on Zamperini’s ordeal in the detention camps and the unjust treatment he receives at the hands of the androgynous Watanabe, whose ambiguous behavior towards the Olympic athlete make him a menace from whom we can only expect the worst. Viewers familiar with Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence will notice familiar traits in the Japanese sergeant, but unfortunately Ishihara doesn’t bring much to his performance except sexualised menace.
In the film’s final moments, however, Jolie reveals the story behind Watanabe, and while this explanation in no way excuses his actions, the glimpse into his own story does offer us a way of recognising the humanity in some of the most malicious people we have ever come across. But perhaps it is a good thing Jolie decided not to show Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics.
“A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain”, Louis’s older brother tells him in one of the film’s many trailer-ready snippets of dialogue. “If you can take it, you can make it” is another oft-repeated saying. The inspirational power of these two expressions is lost because the moment we hear them, very early in the film, we know they will be important later on.
Given Deakins is the film’s director of photography (the visual stalwart of the films of the Coen Brothers, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay), it should come as no surprise that the images are gorgeous, as all the yellows and browns are tinged with gold, and the blues of the sky and the ocean hew between azure and a clear green-blue, respectively.
As Russell “Phil” Phillips, one of Zamperini’s crewmen aboard the bombardier, who endures much of the same hardship throughout the film, Domhnall Gleeson delivers a poignant, highly memorable performance. By contrast, Zamperini’s parents are caricatures of Italian-Americans, and his mother in particular, who never learns a word of English, is maddeningly simplistic.
With Unbroken, her second feature film as director, Jolie plays it too safe. Despite the publicity around the film that stresses the personal importance of the project to her, we feel little passion, and only a handful of scenes have the visceral quality we expect from a war film. The notable exceptions come during the characters’ near-death experiences, when the tension is handled admirably without sentimentality or exaggeration.
On the whole, however, the film is rather disappointing, with dialogue that is often stilted and situations that, while perhaps historically accurate, have little credibility when they are stacked together like here. It remains to be seen what becomes of Jolie as a director; as a storyteller, she is very capable, but as a filmmaker, she still has some way to go.