Unbroken is the story of WWII survivor and US Olympian Louis Zamperini, a remarkable serviceman with an even more remarkable story. Putting his legendary track career on hold like so many other young professionals who enlisted to protect their great nation, Zamperini found himself as an underdog for the umpteenth time in his life after being captured by enemy forces – a grim fate bested by Zamperini’s uplifting strength, courage, and perseverance.
Zamperini’s story inspires hope and was captured by author Laura Hillenbrand in her fantastic historical biography, yet some of Hollywood’s biggest names fail to convey anything more than a patriotic puff-piece in its cinematic adaptation. Directed by Angelina Jolie and written by a collective team including the Coen brothers, a Gladiator scribe, and the screenwriter of Behind The Candelabra, a biographical tone is lost amidst heavy-handed messages that refuses to let us forget just how inspirational Unbroken is (or should be) – kind of like a skipping record on repeat.
Jack O’Connell is tasked with playing Louis Zamperini (for the most part), chronicling his early years up until his release from a Japanese detention camp. As a boy, Zamperini was a troublemaker who had a reputation around town, until his brother Pete (Alex Russell) gets him into long-distance running. Training hard every day, Zamperini eventually becomes one of the leading track stars in the nation, representing America in Germany where he broke a single-lap record.
As already mentioned, Zamperini then joins the Air Force as a bombardier, which eventually culminates in a botched rescue mission that ends with his imprisonment by Japanese forces. It’s here where he meets Mutsushiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), a ruthless war criminal who tortures the captured allied soldiers in Zamperini’s camp. Watanabe is relentless, but the soldiers only see one way of beating their Japanese captors – surviving punishment and walking away as free men at the war’s end.
The nature of “Based On A True Story” films is sometimes a tough script to crack, as filmmakers have to decide what facts should remain on screen and what should be trimmed down, because three-hour epics are often a little difficult to pull off. While moments of grandeur were left in for cinematic effect, like Zamperini capturing a whole shark while floating about on a life raft, other moments feel unnecessarily elongated and pumped with glitzy Hollywood emotions.
Long scenes depicting Zamperini’s struggles are stretched out as spectacle pieces backed by a Lifetime-style insincerity that only cares about being overly feel-good, not unsettling moments of physical anguish and emotional torture. These kinds of biographical movies sometimes feel weightless in the face of a “True Story” label, hoping audiences find enough intrigue in imagining the film’s real life implications, and Unbroken is just another example of such a soulless inhabiting.
Jack O’Connell has been having QUITE the year, with Starred Up standing out prolifically, but Unbroken doesn’t find the same career-defining success as his previous indie work. O’Connell doesn’t feel like he’s embodying a character here, instead finding himself in reenactments from Zamperini’s life – despite providing ample intensity when holding heavy objects over his head. Surrounded by background characters who blend into an unrecognizable mass of distraught faces (then again, how hard is it to make Jai Coutney a generic face?), Zamperini is the only character we can muster even a modicum of sympathy for, but this again detracts from the overall experience of Unbroken. This isn’t a film Jack O’Connell can carry on his back, yet he’s called upon to lead every scene through feats of human willingness and unparalleled determination – a forced effort that feels incredibly made-for-TV.
The characters throughout Unbroken are emaciated, weak, and tired, which is a sad commentary on the film as a whole. Little time is spent during Zamperini’s Olympic exploits, as the film relies on flashbacks to inject a little sports drama, and Zamperini’s imprisonment carries on for what seems like hours of footage. So much time is spent floating at sea, harping on the monotonous isolation faced by stranded soldiers left for dead, and while we’re supposed to be waiting on edge for Zamperini’s “rescue,” the fact remains that we know how his floating survival plays out. Nothing is gained from stretching out the inevitable, which is a major problem that Unbroken deals with insufficiently, as it leaves in far too much extra fat that could have used a quick trim.
None of this takes away from Louis Zamperini and his legacy, and those still interested in his story should definitely give Unbroken a try, but there’s a much more succinct, sincere story hiding under the piles of “Hoo-rah!” screams and over-dramatized climaxes. What we get is a prideful retelling of a great man’s tremendous triumph, but such an inherently moving story needs to be handled properly in order to create an equally jarring cinema epic. The pieces are there, along with riveting source material, but Jolie’s film is far more of a chore than we’re willing to deal with. Unbroken feels like something anyone living through Zamperini’s era might connect with, something that could be played on The History Channel with ease – not an Oscar-worthy turn for actors, writers, or anyone else involved.
Unbroken is safely bland and unfortunately emotionless, feeling more like a reenactment than a proper cinematic retelling of Louis Zamperini's tremendous legacy.