This biopic of athlete and WWII survivor Louis Zamperini is something of a labour of love for Angelina Jolie. This is her second fiction feature as a director following 2011’s drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, which was set against the backdrop of the Bosnian war, and Unbroken shares a number of similar themes and ideas about the brutality of war.
Zamperini’s story was originally optioned by Universal Studios back in the 50s and was intended as a vehicle for Tony Curtis, but for various reasons the film was never made. This biopic is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best selling biography, but only covers the first two thirds of Zamperini’s story. However, Unbroken only scratches the surface, and deals mainly with Zamperini’s experiences during the war. The film only deals with Zamperini’s experiences during the war, but we needed to see more of what happened to him after the war to learn more about the man and why he is considered such an inspirational figure. The film concludes with a brief and hurried sequence in which we see photographs and archival footage of the real Zamperini, but we get no real sense of the man or what he achieved that makes him worthy of a biopic.
It is a tale of survival and endurance, and will be something of an endurance test for audiences as well.
As an adolescent, young Zamperini was on the path to becoming a juvenile delinquent until he found salvation through athletics. Inspired by his older brother he became a long distance runner and a record setting high school athlete. He even competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and was looking forward to competing in the Tokyo Olympics in 1940. But then war broke out and everything changed. He enlisted and became a bombardier with the air force.
His plane was shot down, and crashed in the sea. Zamperini and two crewmates survived, and spent 47 days adrift at sea in a liferaft, facing perilous seas, storms, dehydration and even sharks. But we’ve also seen this sort of thing before, notably with Life Of Pi and Robert Redford as a lone sailor adrift in All Is Lost. There is also a claustrophobic sense to those scenes set in the life raft, which occasionally recall Hitchcock’s 1944 classic Lifeboat.
Then they were rescued by a Japanese navy vessel and spent the rest of the war in Japanese POW camps. Zamperini in particular was singled out for some brutal treatment at the hands of the sadistic Watanabe (played by Japanese pop singer Takamasa Ishihara, credited here under the name Miyavi), who was a rival athlete in Berlin. Miyavi plays him as an unrepentantly vicious sadist, and Jolie deliberately makes us despise him and she pushes the audience’s buttons with a wonderful lack of subtlety.
Zamperini’s treatment at the hands of Watanabe is often wince-inducing, brutal and as hard to watch as the bloody beating dished out to Jim Caviezel’s Jesus in Mel Gibson’s confronting The Passion Of The Christ. The scene in which Zamperini is forced to hold up a log for hours on end gives us an overtly Christ-like image. Zamperini drew upon his brother’s mantra “If you can take it you can make it” to help endure the brutal treatment and ensure his survival. And unlike Colin Firth’s character in 2013’s The Railway Man, there is no cathartic post war meeting with his tormentor.
Jolie doesn’t hold back she lays on the brutality and sadistic nature of Zamperini’s treatment in unrelenting fashion that becomes exhausting and hard to watch. But it is also nothing that we haven’t seen before, most recently in The Railway Man, but the brutal treatment dished out to prisoners of war by their Japanese captors has also been dealt with in films like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and the classic Oscar winning The Bridge on the River Kwai, and in television miniseries like Changi.
Despite its flaws and the familiar nature of much of the material though is a well crafted film, and technical credits are all first rate. Unbroken was filmed in Australia, and production designer Jon Hutman has faithfully created the grim conditions and cramped quarters of the two prison camps where Zamperini was interred. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has shot the film beautifully in widescreen, and captures some great images.
Jolie’s direction is quite good, with some muscular sequences, including some gripping, realistic and superbly staged scenes of aerial combat. But the film also seems a bit too long and some of it is repetitive. The script is a little disappointing, especially considering that the likes of Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard La Gravanese (The Fisher King) and William Nicholson (Gladiator) are amongst the writers. The script is surprisingly flat and one note, and lacks any great depth or insights into Zamperini.
Jack O’Connell (from the TV series Skins) is on screen for most of the film and he delivers a superb performance in a very physically demanding and gruelling role. He is very charismatic and sympathetic as the quietly defiant Zamperini. He even manages to capture that haunted malnourished look that lends authenticity to the character. As his sadistic tormentor, Japanese pop star Miyavi is also very good. The cast also includes the likes of Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund and Domhnall Gleason, but they leave little impression on characters that are one dimensional.
Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Miyavi, Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund and Domhnall Gleason
DVD release: 14 May 2015
For more of Greg King’s writing on film, check out his blog at filmreviews.net.au
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television