Directed by Angelina Jolie
Starring Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garret Hedlund, Jai Courtney
You wait all day for a bus and suddenly two come along at the same time. Hot on the heels of Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, The Water Diviner, we have Unbroken. Not only is it another A-List actor’s first outing behind the camera (Angelina Jolie this time), not only is it a period war film, not only is it a broadly sentimental and ultimately uplifting tale of the human spirit’s triumph over adversity, but it too features Australian Jai Courtney in a supporting role. What are the odds?
Of the two, Unbroken is the better film. Whereas The Water Diviner struggled to find enough story to fill its running time, Unbroken is packed with so much incident that it seems to spill the banks of the movie itself, giving the viewer the sense that much is going un-recounted. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), the tearaway Italian immigrant kid who became an Olympic runner before serving as a tailgunner on an American bomber in World War II, getting shot down, and surviving some truly horrific treatment when he is taken prisoner by the Japanese. If nothing else, it’ll make you feel bad about how little you manage to pack into any given day.
By its very nature, Unbroken is a largely episodic film, attempting as it does to take in almost the entire span of Zamperini’s life and knit it together into a thematically cohesive whole. While it never quite manages that, episode by episode it’s fairly engrossing, with Jolie demonstrating a classical sensibility when it comes to framing the action of the story. It helps that the cinematography by Coen brothers veteran Roger Deakins is absolutely gorgeous, showing a meticulous attention to mise-en-scene. As a director, Jolie doesn’t quite have the chops to take this somewhat overly earnest material into something truly worthy, but she doesn’t disgrace herself, either.
Indeed, Unbroken‘s only serious issue is its tendency to remind the seasoned viewer of other, better, films. Early 20th century track drama? Chariots Of Fire. World War II bomber drama? Memphis Belle (not quite Catch-22). Brutal POW camp survival flick? Take your pick, but the palpable homoerotic tension between Zamperini and his primary tormentor, prison superintendent Mutsuhiro ‘The Bird’ Watanabe (Miyavi) brings Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence immediately to mind. Apparently the film rights to Zamperini’s life got snapped up in the 1950s, but in the long gap between then and now many of his experiences have already been echoed in pop culture.
Which doesn’t make Unbroken a bad film, or even an unoriginal one – you can’t really call shenanigans on a true story – but it doesn’t quite have the impact that it perhaps could have back in the day. It’s a good story, well told, but it feels like it’s been told before even though, technically, it hasn’t.