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Unbroken

D: Angelina Jolie / 137m

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Luke Treadaway, C.J. Valleroy

As a young child, Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Valleroy) is always getting into trouble, whether it’s through stealing or drinking. He’s also bullied at school because of his Italian roots. One day he’s caught looking up women’s dresses from beneath the bleachers at a track meet. He makes a run for it which is witnessed by his older brother, Pete. Realising how fast Louie can run, Pete decides to train him to be a runner. Louie earns a name for himself and as a young man (O’Connell) is chosen to represent the US at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He does well and sets a record for running the final lap of the 5000 metre race.

In 1943, Louie is a bombardier in the United States Army Air Force, stationed in the Pacific. On a search and rescue mission, his plane crashes into the ocean, leaving himself and two of his crew, Phil (Gleeson) and Mac (Wittrock), adrift in two inflatable rafts. Fighting off starvation and the attention of marauding sharks, they survive as a trio until the thirty-third day when Mac dies. On the forty-seventh day Louie and Phil are rescued by a Japanese military ship. Now prisoners of war they’re initially interrogated for information about the Allies and then transferred to separate P.O.W. camps. Louie ends up at a camp in Tokyo that is overseen by Corporal Mutsuhito “Bird” Watanabe (Miyavi). Watanabe makes a point of mistreating Louie, partly because of his fame as an Olympian, and partly out of jealousy.

Louis is given the opportunity to make a radio broadcast that will be heard in the US. He’s able to reassure his family that he’s alive, but when he’s asked to make a second broadcast that’s critical of the US, he refuses. Sent back to the camp, Watanabe makes all the other prisoners line up and punch Louie in the face as a punishment for not making the broadcast. Two years pass. Watanabe is promoted and leaves the camp, much to Louie’s relief. But when the camp is damaged in a bombing raid by US planes, the prisoners are moved to another camp where it transpires that Watanabe is in charge. Watanabe’s mistreatment of Louie continues, until one day when Louie’s resilience and inner strength lead to Watanabe being embarrassed in front of his men and the rest of the P.O.W.s.

Unbroken - scene

Adapted from the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut is a sincere yet curiously dull affair that never quite engages the viewer, despite its obviously worthy subject matter. Zamperini’s plight was horrendous and yet this is a surprisingly sanitised version of events, with only Watanabe’s bouts of cruelty giving the movie any edge (it’s a strange movie that makes the viewer want to see more abuse in order to make it more involving).

This is partly to do with the script – a combination of drafts and rewrites carried out by William Nicholson, Richard LaGravenese and Joel and Ethan Coen – and the directorial decisions made by Jolie. The script does a good job in reflecting Louie’s life as a child, and it’s these early scenes that have the greatest impact, with their nostalgic appreciation for an earlier, more innocent time. Jolie paints these scenes in a rosy hue and quickly establishes a mood for the movie that the audience can appreciate as being straightforward and unfussy. But once Louie is adrift on the ocean it’s where things begin to unravel, and the movie loses traction. The drama begins to leak out of the movie just as it should start to be truly engrossing, and nothing Jolie does from then on ever comes close to retrieving it.

Once Louie arrives at the P.O.W. camp and encounters Watanabe, Unbroken settles into a predictable series of abusive moments that give O’Connell repeated chances to adequately display Louie’s agony and suffering, and Miyavi the chance to impart a degree of homoerotic self-loathing. There’s a surprising lack of tension to these scenes, and Jolie’s direction of them seems to be carried out at a distance, as if her respect for the material is stopping her from taking any risks. As a result, the audience becomes more of a spectator than a participant and the movie becomes unrewarding.

The movie isn’t helped either by some annoying inconsistencies. After spending forty-seven days adrift at sea, Louie and Phil’s physical deterioration is persuasively shown in a scene where they’re made to strip naked (Gleeson looks really awful). And yet it’s all undone by their carefully groomed facial hair – or lack of it – and equal lack of sunburn. It all contributes to the idea that what Jolie is going for is war-lite, a diffusion of the horrors that really happened, and while this isn’t a bad idea per se – we don’t always need to see just how bad things actually were – here it’s as if she’s taken basic notions of heroism and courage and made them more about stoicism and acceptance.

Unfortunately as well, Jolie fails to raise her cast’s performances above the level of satisfactory, with only Miyavi making any impression, his bland mask of a face hiding a dangerous sadism that seems to pain him as much as it pleases him. In contrast, O’Connell’s rise to international stardom takes a stumble. It’s not his fault, he’s just not given much to work with other than “look worried, look despairing, and grimace in pain”. With these constraints in place, he looks stranded at times, as if he knows he should be giving more but has been instructed not to.

Despite all this, there are some good things about the movie, not the least of which is Alexandre Desplat’s emotive, intimate score, and Roger Deakins’ Oscar nominated cinematography. The former is one of the composer’s best works in recent years and lifts the movie out of the doldrums with ease, and unobtrusively as well. Deakins is a master of lighting and mood, and he has an instinctive way of placing the camera, which helps Jolie’s pedestrian approach tremendously. Together, these two elements give the movie a boost it would have missed out on altogether.

Rating: 5/10 – lacking passion and drive, Unbroken is a dull, ponderous affair that is a less than rewarding experience for the viewer; as a tribute to Louis Zamperini’s fortitude and spirit, it could certainly have been more dramatic, but as a (very) low-key examination of one man’s will to survive it fares slightly better.

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