Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Unbroken is relentless and uncompromising, which attests to both the film’s strengths and significant faults. Director Angelina Jolie makes an undeniably American film for her second feature behind the screen, following up the drastically different In the Land of Blood and Honey with this more commercialized fare. Her subtleties as a filmmaker are unwavering: her desire to capture the essence of humanity in the wake of inhuman actions alongside the brutal nature of war on both the domestic and international fronts. Louis Zamperini’s story is one of the most famous to emerge from the war, with his biography continuing to be one of the best-selling and most acclaimed novels of the 21st century. There’s no denying the story’s power. Yet as a cinematic adventure, the Coen Brothers and Co. fail to infuse their script with much humanity, not elaborating on its protagonist enough while making most of the journey a monotonous, gruesome affair. It doesn’t feel urgent or particularly exciting.
Louis (Jack O’Connell) was raised as a boy prone to stealing and living life dangerously. His family loved him dearly and worked hard for him despite his inability to try in school. As immigrants, they faced persecution and found themselves as outsiders. Louis needed to better himself, so he learned how to run efficiently in order to participate in distance running at school and, later on, an Olympic participant for the United States. He wins the gold medal at the 1936 games in Germany and becomes a national hero. He also decides to enroll in the army and serves during World War II, fighting in an airliner over Japan with a ragtag group of pals that he’s grown close to. After a crash leaves them stranded in the water with no sign of life, Louis manages to survive for close to two months before being rescued…by Japanese soldiers. Louis and Phil (Domnhall Gleeson) become prisoners of war in an internment camp and attempt to survive in a desolate, continuously brutal landscape.
Louis runs into a harsh Japanese leader, Watanabe (Miyavi, who has strangely garnered Oscar consideration for a fairly cardboard role), who pushes the American through repulsive tests of character and will. They know that he is a former Olympian, therefore his tests include running around the camp with another man despite being malnourished, forcibly holding a gigantic piece of wood for hours on end (a scene that is embodied in the film’s poster, and holds power for a short while), and being held as an example to be punched repeatedly by other prisoners. When scenes derive from little substance like these, they don’t make for compelling filmmaking. Rather, they amount to an uninvolved narrative that resorts to simplicity and obviousness. There’s plenty of social commentary waiting to emerge from these moments, but the scenes don’t allow for intriguing supporting characters or other socially relevant issues to come forth. Roger Deakins uses his always stunning cinematography to create a few haunting scenes, yet he only crafts beautiful canvas out of images, not narrative. The script never elevates that visual splendor.
Angelina Jolie’s film is excruciating without being graphic, a testament to her desire for emotion over physical torment. A viewer can only take so much of that, though, and the 137-minute running time doesn’t let up over its duration. It’s a frustrating watch because there doesn’t seem to be much past the surface when Louis goes through these human spirit tests. He doesn’t seem unbroken, but rather unbreakable. The torments are overwhelmingly abusive and borderline insurmountable, with the final hour being filled to the brim with physically destructive challenges that no man could endure under those conditions. I can’t attest to the biography’s power, but I’m sure it had to feel more authentic and grounded in reality than the film’s telling, which feels mythic and superhuman. Unbroken has compassion and grace, yet the story never scrapes past the admittedly thin presentation of ideas surrounding war and perseverance.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)