Unbroken review

The credits for Unbroken, Angelina Jolie‘s big screen biopic of real life Olympian Louis Zamperini, reads like a wish fulfilment rendering of a cinematic supergroup.

First you have a script by the Coen Brothers, William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese, adapting from a novel, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand.

Then you have the closest Hollywood gets to a celebrity cinematographer, Roger Deakins guiding the visual look of the film, Alexandre Desplat providing the score and editing maestros William Goldenberg and Tim Squyres in charge of cutting the film.

And that’s just the primary production talent involved, who between them have enough awards nominations and wins to even make Meryl Streep feel a little under appreciated.

But while all of these talented individuals represent some of the best ingredients money can buy, it doesn’t follow that they’ll necessarily be well mixed, and so what we’re served is a surprisingly bland, underwhelming dish.

Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini’s story is a remarkable one. He grew up in Torrance, California, and was bullied from a young age, but in 1936 Zamperini competed in the Berlin Olympics and his fifty-six second final lap of the five thousand meter race was noteworthy enough to warrant a private meeting with Adolf Hitler.

He then joined the U.S. Air Force in 1941, serving as bombardier, before being shot down, and surviving for forty seven days at sea before being captured and imprisoned by the Japanese for two years. And that’s not even getting into the extraordinary later life he had as an inspirational speaker, dedicating many of his senior years to extolling forgiveness for those that had treated him so savagely during the war.

It seems almost impossible that so many skilled craftsmen could make a film from that story which doesnt move one to tears at every turn. Unfortunately, Unbroken has come together as a mostly hollow and often trudging experience, often admirable in its construction but near impossible to engage with, and thus be moved by.

The film begins with a cracking opening sequence that sadly eclipses everything to follow.  Zamperini’s bomber is attacked from all sides in an aerial dogfight that has been shot and edited in such a way that we are always aware of exactly what is going on but never sure of what might happen next. There’s an unpredictability to the sequence that is utterly thrilling.

But then, when the film quickly settles into the grim tale of Zamperini’s struggle through the war, devoting the majority of its runtime to his time stranded at sea and as a POW, the film seems to move away from the audience, unfolding at a distance. Following an exciting scene in which we have no idea what might be round the corner, we get over one hundred minutes that seem to be utterly predictable.

Jolie is clearly enamoured deeply with her subject and whilst this is understandable, her attempts to mythologise Zamperini often do more to harm this portrait than good. A later scene in which Zamperini is forced to lift a girder above his head by a particularly sadistic Japanese prison guard is drowned in religious symbolism, and some unforgivably trite cross-cutting between the struggle and Zamperini running in his dreams, surrounded by a brilliant white light.

Jack O’Connell continues his run of stellar performances – we can all pretend 300: Rise of an Empire didn’t actually happen – and while his talents aren’t always put in service of a convincing whole, he still shines brightly. He’s been challenged with conveying a sense of optimism and stubbornness to charge ahead at all times, and O’Connell ensures we never stop believing in Zamperini’s ability to survive every lasy moment of humiliation, or overcome every obstacle put in his way. He’s both tough and fragile at the same time, a combination we also saw him capture in both Starred Up and ’71.

There’s one last moment in which the emotion of the story really hits home, where documentary footage of the real, eighty year old Zamperini carrying the Olympic torch. Sadly, however, you might simply watch this footage on YouTube; indeed, combine that with a little research into his remarkable story, even on Wikipedia, and you may well find yourself moved rather more than Jolie’s lacklustre feature ever manages.

Unbroken is in UK and US cinemas now.