UNBROKEN. Starring Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund, Miyavi. Directed by Angelina Jolie. 137 minutes.Rated M (Mature themes and violence).
‘Unbroken’ tells the true story of Olympian and WWII veteran Louie Zamperini. This is a story so unbelievable that it manages to squeeze in: a childhood transformation from truant to running prodigy, a record-breaking berth in the 1936 Olympics, successful B-24 bomber runs over Japan, a Pacific crash landing, 47 days drifting in a life raft, internment in Japanese POW camps and an antagonistic rivalry of sorts with a psychotic camp corporal. These plot points are not spoilers, and feature heavily in promotion for the film and the several books written of Zamperini’s life. Despite the story’s ripe foundations, the film feels curiously inert. Enlisting the best cast in front of and crew behind the camera hasn’t helped Jolie here, who never lets the plot-heavy narrative rest long enough to land its punches (pardon the pun).
The film opens in a B-24 over Japanese military targets. After avoiding flak fire, Bombadier Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) hits his targets before the plane is confronted by a squadron of Zeros. Fighting them off, the bomber is shot apart, losing several men and sustaining structural damage. They limp the 5 hours back to base, where their lost hydraulics mean they must essentially crash the plane to avoid overrunning the runway. It is a thrilling sequence, as well shot as you’d expect from veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, but bathed in sunlight unlike his brilliant, shadowy work on ‘Skyfall’. Editor Tim Squyres cuts the action tightly, and develops solid tension, despite the audience knowing Zamperini will survive. However, the film never returns to this level, and a flashback quickly pulls the audience out of the War.
The young Zamperini (C.J. Valleroy) began his youth a delinquent, stealing, drinking liquor and smoking. He is bullied by other kids for his migrant Italian background. Seeing his potential as a runner, his brother Pete trains him, and we are treated to a miraculous montage watching his progress from deadend kid to Olympic athlete. The running scenes sadly never convince, despite the best efforts of O’Connell. Off to the Berlin Olympics, Zamperini impresses in his 5000m race, setting the fastest final lap time in history. As a veteran of the 5000m myself, the film fails again to capture the pain and endeavour of the event.
Back in the war once more, Zamperini’s plane goes down during a search and rescue mission, and he is stranded aboard a lifeboat with two crew members. They encounter sharks, life-threatening storms, lack of supplies and each other, for 47 days. This section of the story is given the most space to breathe, and benefits from this with a sustained impact. However, some of the visual effects don’t match up to expectations, and moments exude an unfortunate comparison to Luhrmann’s ‘Australia’. As Zamperini, O’Connell is very strong, best when talking about his Mother’s cooking in a low-key moment aboard the raft. Bubbling away for years in British film and television, this marks his big break in Hollywood, and ought to be the beginning of a fruitful relationship. Also adrift is Domnhall Gleeson as pilot Phil, another British thesp playing an American role and doing so brilliantly.
After making a bargain with God, Zamperini is finally rescued by a Japanese warship, and the survivors are briefly interred in a jungle POW camp before being transported to a Tokyo camp. Here, Zamperini attracts the attention of ‘the Bird’, a Japanese corporal who runs the camp and causes him unimaginable pain over his sustained imprisonment. Zamperini’s maxim is ‘if you can take it, you can make it’, and he takes more than his fair share here when his identity is discovered. The torture, while difficult to stomach, is too relentless to sink in. Zamperini must fight to survive the war, to win his own little victory over the Bird.
Touted as an early awards contender before its release, ‘Unbroken’ has fallen largely by the wayside since. Its parts feel oddly disconnected, and the whole feels like a low-key way to tell a story deserving of a grander, epic treatment. Director Jolie doesn’t quite measure up to the demands of this film, though her grasp on some of the quieter material appears promising. This is a story which ought to be heard and shared, perhaps just not in the format of this filmic treatment.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out January 15 2015.