Hollywood sure loves its survival narratives. In many ways, these harrowing films have become the tentpole events for dramas delivered in the heart of awards season; ordinary people overcoming an excruciating experience to emerge scarred but unbowed (“12 Years A Slave,” “Wild,” “Gravity,” et al). These films have all the necessary ingredients needed to inspire admiration, awe and wonder, and to stir up emotion by capturing the enduring spirit of human resolve and fortitude. And while Angelina Jolie’s sophomore directorial debut “Unbroken” employs all these elements liberally, she often strains its uses, and this dutiful, curiously hollow picture cannot inspire much feeling outside of admiration for the man who endured such brutalities. Even then, the film hardly arouses an outpouring of empathy. Respectfully presented, “Unbroken” is competently made and has an impressive sequence or two, but it’s ultimately very familiar and eventually draining. Suffering from pacing and monochromatic tonal issues —various types of drab torture for two hours— “Unbroken” is also overlong and eventually settles into a slog with little narrative drive.
The story of WWII veteran Louis Zamperini (British rising star Jack O’Connell, not playing the most convincing first generation Italian American you’ll ever meet) is an astonishing and unbelievable one, yet “Unbroken” is hamstrung by its sense of duty to the nobility of its lead character. It’s clear there’s an obligation felt to tell his entire story, so “Unbroken” attempts to stuff in too much narrative. Chronologically, it follows the life of a wayward immigrant Italian boy who changed his ways, goes on to become an Olympic athlete, only to enlist in WWII as an Air force bombardier who then emergency crash-lands in the Pacific Ocean. After an excruciating 47 days at sea that takes the life of one of the only three survivors, Zamperini and Russell Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) are captured by the Japanese Navy and are then brutalized for years in various Japanese POW camps. But the story is told via flashbacks —as Zamperini is about to experience war time violence, the movie cuts back to more tranquil and innocent times. It’s not so much that this structure doesn’t work so much as it’s abandoned after the key bullet-points of Zamperini’s life are established.
“Unbroken” boasts an unintentionally “unconventional” structure, but one that doesn’t help its uneven pacing. Instead of a traditional three act structure, you have one act that houses three different stories: Zamperini as a boy, as an athlete, and as bombardier. And then about three more acts of grueling torment and suffering: one at sea, one in a Japanese POW camp and then another in another snowy POW camp in Northern Japan. If this sounds long, arduous and drawn-out, that’s because it is.
“Unbroken” starts out promisingly; Zamperini and his B24 battalion drop bombs over Japan and are almost shot down in the process. This sequence is dazzling and nerve-wracking without having to resort to showy camera moves or tricks. In fact, Roger Deakins’ camera remains muted and staid throughout; rarely moving and mostly exhibiting handsomely framed compositions. This aerial action sequence is extremely well oriented and a triumph of filmmaking, an impressively deft use of sound, editing and composition. But formally, this is really the only sequence that stands out, and “Unbroken” is otherwise a rather unremarkable portrait of resolve.
Co-starring Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney and Luke Treadaway, the cast doesn’t contain much of a standout beside fellow castaway Finn Wittrock and O’Connell, and even the lead feels underused and miscast, especially given how astonishing he’s been this year in films like “Starred Up” and “’71.” His greatest feat is perhaps just losing weight and appearing to be on the frayed edges of sanity at almost all times, but he does not stimulate much feeling with his tenacity and determination against what feel like doomed odds. And in the second half of the picture, “Unbroken” simply sways between what feels like Zamperini on the precipice of spiritual defeat and then his second-wind of resolution, over and over again.
Perhaps the most engaging element of the film is its cartoonishly sadistic Japanese camp guard Cpl. Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe played by the mono-monikered Miyavi, a J-pop star who plays the character with a mix of spoiled rich kid entitlement and little boy petulance. The Bird mercilessly zeroes in on Zamperini like a cat who toys with a dead mouse. This inhuman persecution finally culminates in a flogging that becomes the most gloriously ridiculous and exaggerated beat-down of 2014 (to paraphrase Playlist contributor Jordan Hoffman, this punishing, over-the-top scene is to fight scenes what embarrassing sex scenes are to “Munich”)
At 2 hours, 17 minutes in length (which feels even longer), one understands the desire to honor every aspect of Zamperini’s remarkable tale of survival, but trimming could have helped —we’d suggest ditching some of those not-very-convincing CGI sharks or that CGI-rendered ocean thunderstorm (both of which looked much better in “Life Of Pi” and “All Is Lost”) that test your suspension of disbelief. Aside from his days as adolescent delinquent —who is set straight after a few stern words from his older brother— Zamperini is depicted as a relentless soldier who will not crack despite the torrent of abuse leveled in his direction. Additionally, all of Jolie’s analogies and platitudes are clunky and facile; Zamperini is inexhaustible and unyielding, because he was a long-distance runner, remember? And while his many beatings are taxing, they are much more punishing than they are moving, and so their emotional resonance retreats as the picture carries on.
Credited to four screenwriters —Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson— nothing in the story’s writing suggests the inventiveness of any of these authors aside from maybe the unusual structure, which ultimately does the film no favors.
For all its heart-swelling bluster regarding the triumph of human will and spiritual resilience, “Unbroken” concludes in mostly anticlimactic fashion. The war ends, and yes, there’s a freeze-frame that captures the rather clichéd moments of blissful familial reunion. Loyal to a fault, “Unbroken” also can’t resist the urge to pile on with a Louis Zamperini coda that tells us the hero bravely decided to forgive his captors, set to a milquetoast-y Coldplay song. Jolie means well, her movie is very loyal and well intentioned, but ultimately “Unbroken” is starchy and prudish; no hairs are left out of place other than those knocked by the umpteenth bamboo strike to the temple. [C]