Every Christmas there is always at least one movie that is released that is inspirational, powerful, and crowd-pleasing. This year we have the release of Angelina Jolie’s true story biopic about Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, Unbroken, set amidst the war in the Pacific during WWII. While the film is immensely powerful and entertaining, it suffers greatly from its muddled script containing hardly any contextual clues or character development.
From a young ruffian to an Olympian, Zamperini lived an interesting life. He was bullied for his Italian background, he was no good-citizen, and he did not aspire to anything. His brother helps him find his niche in running. This propels him through his life, ultimately reaching the Olympic Games in Germany in 1936. What makes him sign up for the war is not present, but then we are left to see him crash-land into the ocean, survive for 47 days, and then get sent to various Japanese POW camps where he is tortured and brutally beaten.
Unbroken is a sprawling film, covering several years, but we seldom get hints as to how much time has passed, with the minor exception of the raft scenes. Most of the talk in the film alludes to it but it requires a bit of mathematics or a history buff to fully get your bearings on the year. The script is not the strongest part of the film because of one major flaw: we do not really quite get any instances of what drove Zamperini throughout his abuse and living in squalor. Early in the film it is constantly pointed out that “if you can take it, you can make it.” We know Zamperini is a determined, always-get-back-up kind of guy, but we do not ever get any sort of inner dialogue, narration, or other driving forces except simply surviving. We spend nearly 2.5 hours with the guy, and once the flashbacks subside after the first act, we never learn anything more about what makes Louis the man he is. In any other movie this might not seem like a huge issue, but for a survival story about a man pushed to his absolute limits, it would have been nice to get just a little more character development to really drive the nail home. The most surprising fact about this script is that it was written in part by the Coen brothers who are known for their sharp writing. That does not translate, however, to this film where Jolie appears to be trying to speed through it as fast as possible without giving any contextual clues or even the motivation for Louis to join the army.
Even though the character development is significantly lacking, the acting is extraordinary. Not well known in the United States, Jack O’Connell, most known for Skins in the UK, transitions to Hollywood superbly. He is likable, talented, and will surely soon be a rising star. He gives a grand-standing performance as Louis. From his snarky and optimistic outlook during the time on the raft, to his heartbreaking and destroyed times in the prison camps, O’Connell plays the board and manages to overcome the severely lacking script to give us a truly inspiring performance.
With O’Connell leading the film with his powerful performance, most of the actors are set aside, especially after the first act of the film. While the opening scenes have actors like Domhnall Gleeson, and later on there is Garrett Hedlund and Jai Courtney, we do not get enough time with them to really know them either. They do not exactly serve major purposes, and some of them hardly get their names spoken so you do not know what to call them. On the other hand, the second great performance is given by Takamasa Ishihara, who plays “The Bird.” He is a ruthless and cruel leader in the camps. He senselessly beats O’Connell and becomes to hated that we fear his name. He has no remorse and we never really quite know why he is so angry and violent towards Louis, yet Ishihara imbues him with such menace and poison resulting in a fantastic performance.
In a previous review for The Railway Man, I wrote about how that movie (which also takes place in a Japanese POW camp during WWII) refrained from overusing the violence of the camp commandants, which helped the scenes where there was a beating or whipping feel necessary and not for shock-value. Jolie must have missed this memo (though the book is reportedly more graphic and explicit about the violence,) and we are inundated with constant beatings, which by the end only seem to show a vast brutality from the Japanese side and reduces them to heartless aggressors who have no humanity, which may be true but it does not paint them in a good light. No side in a war was generous or humane with their prisoners, but we should not look down on someone for something we very infamously did as well.
In the end, Unbroken is hardly any different from your usual POW story. Its reminders of the theme, the lack of character development and motivation, its seemingness to rush through the material, and its overused torture scenes constrain the film which should be about overcoming hard challenges and breaking free of restraints. O’Connell’s performance saves the film from being dragged down even further, and I have no doubt that his name will become more famous on this side of the ocean. Don’t get me wrong, the film is entertaining, especially the early scenes on the raft with them desperately hunting sharks, but it is still a film that is more broken than the title suggests.