Director: Angelina Jolie
Major Players: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson
Out Of Five: 3
I didn’t know anything about Louis Zamperini until I heard Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken was on its way. Then, quite by chance, I found myself listening to a radio documentary about him. It was captivating, especially because so much of the story came from the man’s own mouth. And what a story for a film!
A bright teenager, but with a knack for getting into trouble, Louis (Jack O’Connell) found an outlet for his energy in athletics and ran for his country in the 1936 Olympics. When his sporting career was cut short by World War II, he served in the American Air Force, was shot down and survived 47 days in an open life raft, only to be captured by the Japanese. Sent to a POW camp where savage beatings and torture were inflicted on him by a guard known by the prisoners as The Bird (Miyavi), his determination to survive remained intact, and after the war he became an advocate for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Like I said, what a story! A really inspirational one of courage and determination. And, to turn it into a film, Jolie has assembled a group of A listers – the Coen brothers to write the script, Roger Deakins behind the camera and Alexander Desplat to write the score (with Coldplay providing the mandatory theme song). And, of course, there’s Ange herself in the director’s chair. Such a line-up immediately attracted the label “Oscar bait” and on paper it looks it. In reality, it’s not. The nominations have been flowing like glue: zilch Golden Globe nods and just four Critics’ Choice. It’s not looking good for the Academy Awards and the reason is very simple. It’s not good enough.
Nobody is quite at the top of their game. Deakins, whose cinematography I admire hugely, creates some beautiful set pieces, such as the never-ending sea with the dot of a life raft in the centre, containing Zamperini and the other crew members. There’s a great aerial view of the POWs clustered together under the flight path of what turns out to be an American plane, expecting to be killed but discovering that the war is over. But the consistency isn’t there and that goes for the film as a whole. It manages to reach the emotional levels it aspires to but, again, only occasionally and that means it’s difficult for the audience to be fully involved.
Where Jolie does score is in her casting of 24 year old British actor Jack O’Connell as Zamperini, a remarkably bold move when names like Dane DeHaan were also in the frame. O’Connell’s face isn’t a familiar one for the Americans – hopefully, this film should put that right – but over here he’s carved out a reputation for himself as an actor who takes on physically and emotionally demanding roles. ’71 and Starred Up both showed what he could do and he brings the same qualities to this role, roaring defiance at his brutal Japanese guard. Sadly, he’s let down by a less than authentic approach to his appearance: in the life boat for 47 days, all he manages to grow is a neat ‘tache and goatee, while his pilot has a long, straggly beard. And, worse still, his teeth remain immaculately white while in the POW camp – although he had to have his underarm hair dyed to match the dark hair he had to take on for the role.
The casting of Japanese musician/actor Miyavi as The Bird is less successful and is one of the film’s major weaknesses. We hear some of his back story from the other POWs – that he wanted to be an officer but was turned down, so his behaviour’s erratic. But we never see more than brutality and sadism, mixed with a weakness that Japanese soldiers at the time would have found dishonourable. And that’s about it, although we discover at the end that there’s a more complex person lurking underneath. He was the only person that refused to meet Zamperini when he went to Japan to promote forgiveness.
The film ends very abruptly, with the rest of Zamperini’s life – he died this year aged 97 – summarised in a few lines of text, some footage of him in Japan and a photograph or two. And that’s it. It’s just as significant and inspirational, but in a different way and, although it probably merits its own film, it also deserves more recognition than a few passing references.
It’s also a film that’s curiously out of kilter. While there are three distinct parts to the story – athletics, the life boat and the POW camp – the emphasis is very much on the third one. There are some strong moments in the others – the bombing raid is the most heart pounding sequence in the entire film – but it’s the brutality of the camp that gets Jolie’s attention, yet she curiously shies away from showing the conditions in their full harshness. Instead, she relies on the reactions of the POWs to show us what’s actually happening – usually an effective technique, but here we could do with a few less punches being pulled.
Unbroken is a film packed with great ingredients, but you need more than that to make a great film. And the way they’ve been mixed doesn’t bring out the best in them. It’s an inspirational story but, sadly, not an inspirational film.
Unbroken is released around the UK on Boxing Day, 26 December.