Languishing in development for years Unbroken was deemed ‘unfilmable’ due to its almost unbelievable true story. Enter Angelina Jolie who had her mind set on adapting Laura Hillenbrand’s non-fiction novel into her sophomore directorial effort.
In his youth Louis Zamperini is a bit of a tear away, a young boy who doesn’t believe he’ll amount to anything in this world. But as he grows up (becoming the matinee idol looking Jack O’Connell) his older brother trains him to run. Making it to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 Zamperini proves he is not just a flash in the pan. But with the outbreak of World War II Zamperini finds himself as a bombardier running bombing missions on the Japanese island of Nauru. When his plane crashes into the ocean Zamperini survives at sea for a record 47 days before being interned in a series of Japanese prisoner of war camps run by the ruthless Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara).
There is no question as to what a stunning story Unbroken tells. That this young man could overcome such adversity through his sheer gritted determination and strength of will is inspiring to say the least. O’Connell continues his vertical trajectory up the Hollywood A-list of actors, here demonstrating that he can carry a vast, sprawling true story on his broad shoulders. As Zamperini is put through the wringer so O’Connell veers from steely determination to all-too-nearly shattered man. It’s no wonder there is award buzz for the Derbyshire born thespian who is easily the film’s unique selling point.
The film however rarely engages on an emotional level. Zamperini’s feats and strength should make Unbroken riveting but it frequently feels flat. Jolie seems too anxious to focus on the Herculean trials set before Zamperini often dragging out moments that feel exploitative rather than emphasising, and as such it’s only O’Connell rather than the story keeping you interested.
It’s frustrating as at over two hours long there seems little excuse, given the subject matter, not to pull on our heart strings. Jolie’s direction never exceeds functionality, it feels as if a fledgling director has just past their driver’s test and been given the keys to a helicopter, it’s too big a story to tell for someone who, while clearly showing potential, is still learning their craft.
That being said she’s called upon eleven times Oscar nominated director of photography Roger Deakins to inject a visual flair that aids proceedings. The early scenes set in America and the closing act set in the prisoner of war camp certainly pop. But some of it feels a little too CGI-ed, the obvious visual flourishes going to waste on low-budget looking green-screen backdrops. It could also do with a good bit of editing. Because there is little more annoying that sitting through a long film only for the title cards at the end to reveal pieces of information hugely moving and powerful, the kind of information we’d like to see Zamperini experience ourselves rather than be told in the final moments via cue-cards. Wikipedia is intended for that sort of thing, Jolie missing the key mantra of filmmaking; show don’t tell.
Held together by a fantastic central performance from Jack O’Connell, Unbroken is a powerful story told with little drive and determination, unlike its protagonist.