Director: Angelina Jolie
KEEP going the way you’re going and you’ll end up a bum,” is the not exactly promising evaluation the young Louis Zamperini hears in Angelina Jolie’s war-time biopic Unbroken.
Starring Jack O’Connell as Zamperini and Domhnall Gleeson as loyal comrade Phil, Unbroken is a true account of one man’s resilience to violence, imprisonment, torment and torture.
Jolie’s movie is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s stirring biography of Zamperini, an American Olympian, war-hero and born-again Christian.
O’Connell and Gleeson both “Yank-up” their accents and “skinny-down” their torsos to give authentic portrayals of starving, suffering and desperate men. In faithfully following the chapters of Zamperini’s remarkable early life, Unbroken is an epic narrative that attempts to depict an everyday guy becoming a mythic figure.
How well Jolie succeeds in this attempt is debatable, though her film certainly has myth-making material.
The plot shows Zamperini’s adventures (there seems no other word) taking him from adolescent tearaway to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and eventually to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Along the way he enlists in the US Air Force, crashes into the Pacific and spends three months drifting in a raft along with two fellow airmen. The men endure by eating raw fish and seabirds, while fighting off hungry sharks and the creeping threat of insanity. “We’re not dying out here,” Zamperini defiantly yells.
But Zamperini’s difficulties deepen when he’s “rescued” from Pacific waters by the Japanese military. He’s incarcerated in the notorious interrogation centre at Ofuna, where he comes under the sadistic concentration of Mutsushiro Watanabe, played by top rock-and-pop performer Miyavi (imagine a Japanese Beck).
Being a famed Olympian makes Zamperini the target for especially vindictive treatment. The guards strive to break his will as a pernicious example to the other POWs, who in one scene are ordered to literally give Zamperini a beating. Yet his will indeed remained unbroken and he proved a true survivor. It seems that having been to hell and back once, he somehow repeated the trip.
This authentic action is sometimes moving but sometimes uninvolving. The movie looks wonderful and that’s one of its problems. A little like the beauty of the film’s director, it’s so pristine it seems aloof.
The narrative sweep has the sense of an old Pathe newsreel — not uninteresting but still more than a tasty hors d’oeuvre to an incomplete meal. The mise-en-scene is sometimes entirely incongruous. Zamperini’s immigrant childhood is shown in smoky, airbrushed hues, the Zamperinis looking the most polished and best-dressed poor family in history.
Things aren’t helped by dialogue that belongs to the fortune-cookie register. At one point Zamperini’s brother assures him that “a moment of glory is worth a lifetime of pain”, a mixed-up maxim if ever there was one. The script is co-written by the Coen brothers (yes, Joel and Ethan), whose cynicism usually cuts to the bone with surgical accuracy. Here they are earnestly unconvincing. Or should that be unconvincingly earnest?
Some action set pieces are excellently rendered by top-rated cinematographer Roger Deakins, who regularly works with the Coen brothers. Deakins can capture dramatic tension in both large and small scale, whether it’s an aircraft crashing into the ocean or a prisoner confined in a cell the size of a rabbit hutch.
Yet given the unique character of Zamperini’s life, Unbroken seems oddly reminiscent of so many other films.
The Olympic content evokes Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981), while the lost-at-sea section recalls Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012). As for the Japanese cruelty, take your pick from The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), Bryan Forbes’ quietly-nasty King Rat (1965) or David Lean’s monumental Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Additionally, with the androgynous Watanabe’s homoerotic leanings towards Zamperini, there are even hints of Nagisa Oshima’s more obscure Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983).
The narrative avoids perhaps the most psychologically intriguing chapters of Zamperini’s biography. In post-war life he experienced alcoholism, anger issues and depression, which were only “healed”, he claimed, by the preaching of Christian evangelist Billy Graham.
Zamperini travelled to Sugamo prison and met his former torturers, reaching a form of catharsis by confronting Watanabe face-to-face. Still, late in his life Zamperini declared that “WW2 isn’t over” and that his pain continued, as it did for others. Jolie’s movie implies that heroism somehow surmounts the degradation of war; a questionable philosophy.
Zamperini died in July. Jolie showed him the film on his deathbed. It’s said he was impressed by O’Connell’s performance and the rest of the cast, including Gleeson. Unbroken is an entrée into Hollywood circles for both actors and their screen chemistry works well. The offbeat handsome features of both men offer an irregularity that the narrative deeply needs. For all the human brutality on display the most visceral moment comes with the wringing of a seagull’s neck, before it’s devoured in hunger.
We’ve seen O’Connell and Gleeson in stronger stuff before and will no doubt do so again. And what viewers see here isn’t weak. But Zamperini’s life contained aspects of remarkability that are almost unmatched, yet the biopic of that life is nicely varnished but somehow unfinished.
Unbroken opens in Britain and Ireland on St Stephen’s Day