By Preston Wilder
Hollywood films have no personality. It’s a common complaint – but one that you couldn’t really make of Unbroken. Trouble is, this triumph-of-the-spirit drama has the personality (or at least the public persona) of its director, Angelina Jolie. Ms. Jolie comes across as an emotional, obsessively nurturing person with a passion for helping refugees and adopting poor orphans – and the film is much the same, an emotional, obsessively nurturing drama with a hero who’s a figurative orphan begging to be adopted.
“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end!” quipped that old cynic Thelma Ritter in All About Eve 65 years ago – and the story of Louis Zamperini (rising star Jack O’Connell, who’s recently been terrific in ’71 and Starred Up) is a bit like that. First he was a hoodlum, the despair of his Italian-immigrant parents. Then he became a runner, inspired by his older brother – “If you can take it, you can make it!” was the brother’s inspirational motto – and ran in the 5000m at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Then he became a WW2 airman, flying dozens of missions. Then he got shot down over the Pacific, and spent an incredible 47 days at sea, in a tiny life raft with two other soldiers. Then, for a coup de grace, he was captured by the Japanese and spent two years in a hellish prisoner-of-war camp run by a sadist. Then – just when you thought the story was over – he got transferred to another camp, working on the coal barges, and couldn’t even look forward to the end of the war because the Japs planned to kill all prisoners before surrendering.
This is a true story. We know that because it says so in the opening shot, backed by a heavenly choir. Most films save the heavenly choirs for the uplifting climax – but Unbroken doesn’t bother because it’s all uplifting, with a few surprising hints of religiosity. Louis’ raft-mate Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) is devout, and looks to God to help him through his trials; Louis himself ends up almost literally crucified, forced to hold up a wooden bar that looks like a cross. Mostly, however, the film is about resilience (“The way we beat them is by making it to the end of the war alive”) and the human capacity for suffering stoically. Louis doesn’t do anything clever in the PoW camp; he doesn’t outsmart the Japanese or become a wheeler-dealer, like the prisoners in King Rat or Empire of the Sun. He just takes it on the chin, like those poor orphans who haven’t (yet) found a movie star to pluck them from their misery. If you can take it, you can make it.
Unbroken is like Chariots of Fire meets Life of Pi meets Bridge on the River Kwai – but in fact it most resembles another movie, a comparison that suddenly hit me when young Louis realised he could run really fast whilst fleeing pursuers. This is Forrest Gump revisited, a historical slog with a passive but likeable hero. Like Gump, it’s handsomely made; Jolie has access to the best technicians in Hollywood, especially DP Roger Deakins who crafts some delectable shots (my favourite: prisoners silhouetted against a raging fire). Also like Gump, it’s essentially simplistic and prone to cliché. The sadistic camp commandant, known as ‘The Bird’, gets a ‘We are the same, you and I’ speech, like a Bond villain; he’s also tagged as an abusive parent, hurting Louis’ self-esteem – “You are nothing!” he taunts – another reminder of the nurturing woman behind the camera.
Jolie does good work as a humanitarian and UNICEF Ambassador, so more power to her; as a filmmaker, however, she lacks nuance. Unbroken is watchable enough – the opening sequence, a WW2 bombing mission, is very exciting – but when Louis and Phil are being strafed by a Japanese plane AND their raft is sinking AND there are sharks in the water, one’s compassion starts to shade into uncontrollable giggling. At one point, The Bird forces all the other prisoners to take turns punching Louis in the face as punishment – so they form a line and start punching, then Jolie cuts to a wide-shot at sunset (presumably hours later) and they’re still punching. The effect is cartoonish, whereas if the film had stuck to close-ups and cut quickly (e.g. to Louis’ battered face afterwards) it might’ve been quite powerful.
Some will find Unbroken moving, but I didn’t believe a single manipulative moment. ‘True story’ or not, did Louis really turn to Phil when he saw they were being rescued by a Japanese warship – half-dead and delirious, after 45 days at sea – and say: “Phil … I’ve got good news and bad news”? Maybe he did, but it still comes off slick and implausible; this is fairytale stuff, the world according to Hollywood. At least it’s got personality.
DIRECTED BY Angelina Jolie
STARRING Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi
US 2014 137 mins