A well-deserved and accomplished tribute to a survivor’s trials of war, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is nevertheless a shallow experience of suffering.
The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Closing with Unbroken, 2014 seems to be the year for lost-at-sea stories of survival. And while, as a mini genre, it’s not exactly new – with groundbreaking precursors such as Hitchcock’s Lifeboat or Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s “unfilmable” novel Life Of Pi, with All Is Lost and Kon-Tiki this year has brought us the intimate destruction of hope, the hubris of adventuring and now with Unbroken the grit and human dignity of survival. It’s Jolie’s second feature after In the Land of Blood and Honey, and in another prison-camp tale of brutality, the United Nations Special Envoy returns with a well-deserved tribute to Louis Zamperini – the Olympic athlete who survived the Second World War through 47 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean and internment in a Japanese POW camp. Zamperini, who died earlier this year, is powerfully brought to life by Jack O’Connell as Angelina Jolie’s film recreates the high points of his life, from a wayward teenager via competition runner to US Air Force bombardier.
A young boy growing up in an Italian immigrant family in Torrance, California, Louis is on the wrong path. He might listen to the priest’s sermons on forgiveness, but he stubbornly follows his own path, smoking and drinking liquor. But when his brother Pete sees him scoot across the athletics field, he encourages Louis to run. And with natural talent and training, Louis is soon setting national records and heading off to the Olympics in Berlin. Several years later, the USA joins the Second World War and Louis (Jack O’Connell) is serving as a bombardier in the air force in Hawaii. After his crew’s plane is wrecked by Japanese fighter jets, they fly out on a reconnaissance mission in a “lemon” plane (serviceable, but pieced together out of spare parts) which is forced to crash-land in the Pacific, killing all but Louis, Commander ‘Phil’ (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock). Stranded in a life-raft with barely anything to eat or drink, Phil and Louis nevertheless survive 47 days at sea, despite hunger, sharks and bullets from Japanese bombers. Only to drift into the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands, where they’re brutally tortured and shipped off to a prisoner of war camp to live out the rest of the war.
There’s no doubt Louis Zamperini had a momentous life. And with his teenage running days sealed with the motto “A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain”, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken pays glorious tribute to this forgotten hero. With no intertitles at the start however, to indicate either time or place, this isn’t a Second World War film per se, but rather a film of one man’s suffering, survival and human dignity. It’s surprising therefore that, despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune thrown at Zamperini, that we never really understand the man’s personality – his youthful rebellion simply replaced by a taciturn determination and resolute grit. Stumbling from one painful moment to the next, Unbroken depicts one man’s via dolorosa, with moments reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, as Louis and Phil stand in the middle of the jungle camp, expecting to be executed but given instead a bath, or Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ as Louis Zamperini takes up a heavy wooden sleeper, falls and carries it again. Clichéd perhaps, but for director Jolie, they’re defining moments of defiance for a man who has suffered time and again, and yet still finds the wherewithal to defy his nemesis “The Bird” with an insolent look and a superhuman lift.
It’s a moment that lasts all day, and recalls the fate of Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave – hanging from a tree on tiptoe, as Louis Zamperini stands all day, carrying the burden of a railway sleeper above his head. And yet, this homage to a courageous survivor is marred by Alexandre Desplat’s overbearing score and a cliché-ridden script from Joel and Ethan Coen. Thankfully, for the most part, the dialogue is sparse, but is occasionally punctuated with uninspired lines, like the derivative “You’d better get some shut-eye” or the achingly familiar “I’m gonna light it up like Christmas.” Unlike 12 Years A Slave though, Unbroken – aside from Jack O’Connell’s captivating performance – doesn’t quite get under the skin of suffering, providing the texture of pained screams and desperate tears, but without a real sense of the psychological anguish that causes Louis to cry out.
While Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave finds a kind of beauty in the horror, Angelina Jolie’s film – while solidly put together to recount the highlights of Zamperini’s life – is unable to galvanise the tortured ordeal into anything greater. There’s no thread besides survival in the face of brutality to see the film through. And in fact, it’s as the credits roll that the real emotional drama unfurls, with Zamperini’s lifelong determination to meet and forgive his captors and torturers. Instead, Unbroken relies on its plucky underdog narrative, an all-American hero and a cathartic wave of nationalism to cheer the valiant, unspeaking POW on. But while Jolie’s film might not do justice to the experience of survival, it is no doubt a great tribute to a courageous survivor long overdue.
Unbroken is released on 26th December 2014 in the UK