Based on a true story, Unbroken examines the life of former Olympic track star Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) a bombardier United States Army Air Forces who was held as a Prisoner of War in Japan during World War II.
Unbroken is Angelina Jolie’s third movie as a director, but the first of her films to be released in Ireland. Based on a true story, Jolie’s film examines the life and legacy of a US POW in Japan, who was captured after his plane crashed off the coast of Oahu.
In years to come, it’s fairly clear that Jack O’Connell will remember 2014 as the year that changed his career. Star turns in Starred Up and ’71, as well as a small role in 300: Rise of an Empire have brought the actor to public attention, and he is the heart and soul of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. Although it seems a rather strange choice to cast a young actor from Derby as an Italian American Olympic runner, O’Connell does well with his role as Zamperini, although his severely coloured hair makes him look a little strange. O’Connell keeps the fire to survive alive in his portrayal of Zamperini, and it is through his triumphs and defeats that the audience goes on the film’s journey.
Domhnall Gleeson plays US pilot Russell Allen ‘Phil’ Phillips, Jai Courtney and Garrett Hedlund play American POWs in the Japanese camps, and Japanese singer Takamasa Ishihara takes on the role of the cruel and violent prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was later included in General Douglas MacArthur’s list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan. The performances in the film are strong enough to keep the story and the action interesting, so the problems that arise in UNBROKEN have their roots elsewhere.
The screenplay, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book, went through several incarnations before it hit the screen, and was written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. The Coen Brothers came on board in 2013, to rewrite the screenplay, but fans of the Coens will find little familiar or recognizable in their work on Unbroken. The film follows a linear pattern through Zamperini’s life, for the most part, and feels as though it is drifting from scene to scene, event to event. There are often times where important moments are not examined or explained, leaving the audience to wonder of their impact.
There is little doubt that Zamperini lived an interesting life – he shook Hitler’s hand at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, before climbing a flag pole and stealing Hilter’s personal flag – but the attributes and strength that made helped Zamperini to survive terrible torture as a POW is hardly present on screen. Instead, he is portrayed as a stubborn man who survived due to his relationship with his faith.
As director, it seems that Angelina Jolie has not yet developed a strong hand, and the skill to be ruthless with decisions that would have benefitted the film. The performances are strong, but often unfocused, and the film as a whole feels rudderless, as though it is content to drift through Zamperini’s story, rather than tell it.
In all, Unbroken attempts to tell an interesting story, but manages to be rather pedestrian and dull. O’Connell, Gleeson and Hedlund shine through, but the film lacks an engaging screenplay, and needed a firmer directorial voice to tell the story.