Film review: Unbroken

Unbroken is a story about Louis Zamperini that seems to have little interest in Louis Zamperini.
Jack O'Connell portrays Olympian and war hero Louis Zamperini in Unbroken. AP Photo / Universal Pictures
Jack O'Connell portrays Olympian and war hero Louis Zamperini in Unbroken. AP Photo / Universal Pictures

Director: Angelina Jolie

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund

Three stars

Unbroken is a story about Louis Zamperini that seems to have little interest in Louis Zamperini.

The film painstakingly details his harrowing wartime experience and every brutal assault. But don’t expect to walk away with a deep understanding of the Olympic athlete, who survived not only 47 days on a raft in the Pacific but also two years as a prisoner-of-war in a Japanese detention camp.

Unbroken floats on the surface. It isn’t a bad movie – it’s just safe to a fault.

The director Angelina Jolie has made a beautiful film based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book. Her respect for Zamperini’s story is evident. By the end, though, the gaze turns reverential and distant as his experiences become more obscured.

Unbroken kicks off with a bang. A gorgeous air battle places the audience in the middle of Second World War. From there, it fades in-and-out of flashbacks to Zamperini’s childhood and unlikely ascent to athletic greatness. Before enlisting in the Air Force, he was a track star who ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Though fairly straightforward, his racing scenes are among the most exciting of the movie – he’s a guy who saves his best for the final moments. It’s immediate and thrilling. The wartime “present”, however, has the feel of a lengthy montage, especially when Zamperini and two crewmates are stranded after their plane crashes in the Pacific. He survived on a raft at sea for 47 days, only to be captured by the Japanese and put into a brutal POW camp.

The film becomes a series of moments – flashes of misery on a boat as we see men in various stages of decay. It strips the experience of any arc or thrill. There’s also a missed opportunity for an emotional gut punch when Zamperini is separated from his friend. It seems like Jolie was aiming for subtlety here. Instead, we just feel robbed.

When he gets to the POW camp, we’re introduced to a sadistic prison guard whose sole purpose seems to be to beat Zamperini. Again, without any inquiry into what inspired Zamperini to endure, the endless brutality falls flat.

O’Connell’s performance is strong and steadfast with moments of greatness and deep vulnerability, but it fails to inspire an emotional response.

Jolie hasn’t done a disservice to Zamperini’s life, but it’s hard to know what she was trying to tell. It’s Zamperini’s story in fact and circumstance – yet he feels like an enigma.

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: December 31, 2014 04:00 AM

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