One of the odder cinematic trends in 2014, during the centenary of World War 1, is its focus on the Second World War. Unbroken is the third major film this year, after Fury and Imitation Game, to centre on this conflict, although its focus is slightly wider than either of those examples. Following the story of Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), a man to whom life dealt a shittier hand than it had any right to, we see everything from his troubled childhood all the way to an epilogue featuring his death, which happened this year. It’s an all-American tale of courage, individualism and survival, elevated by a great lead performance, but suffering from simplistic dialogue and a lack of emotional variety.
Zamperini’s story, and it is a truly remarkable one, has been floating around Hollywood for almost 60 years (the first star ever considered for the role was Tony Curtis), but has not been made until now due to (apparently) the scripts not being strong enough. Unfortunately, that element has not really changed. The screenplay here is pretty rote, particularly during the childhood sequences which feature an older brother character who speaks exclusively in inspirational clichés. With all the grandstanding speeches and lack of subtlety, its very hard to believe that you’re watching a Coen brothers script unfolding. Zamperini’s career as a sprinter is given only a short amount of time on screen and things do pick up once he gets to war. Flying over Japan as a bombardier, Louie’s plane crashes during a rescue mission, stranding him, the pilot (Domhnall Gleeson) and a gunner (Finn Wittrock) in a life raft on the open ocean.
The 45 days spent at sea constitute Unbroken’s strongest sequence by far, reminiscent of last year’s All is Lost but with more dialogue. Both O’Connell – who is rapidly ascending the Hollywood ladder – and Gleeson make for good company, and O’Connell in particular is genuinely great, a class above the material he’s been given. However, even these scenes cannot surpass the most pressing problem with the film’s plot, which is that, throughout the entire runt time, Zamperini has almost no agency in any of the events. The protagonist’s complete lack of control and choice in any given situation means that Unbroken swiftly becomes uninteresting, as problems are only ever resolved by grand external events, and never by a core character.
Inevitably, this is felt most keenly during Zamperini’s time in the Japanese POW camps, where his life is controlled by the sadistic Corporal Watanabe, otherwise known as the Bird (played by Japanese music star Miyavi, giving an impressive debut film performance). No escape schemes ever come to fruition, and Zamperini and his compatriots are merely herded from one horrific torture to the next. Whilst this is obviously true to the story of Zamperini’s life, and it does paint an effectively grim portrait of prisoner life, it stops being particularly engaging after a while, and none of the more tonally varied elements of other POW films, such as gallows humour or the in-camp relationships, are ever properly explored.
It’s impossible to deny that Unbroken is a technical feat. The production values are clear, from the grand sets and set-pieces to the brilliant make up work and Roger Deakins’s ever-exemplary cinematography. Alexander Desplat’s score, despite being guilty of telling the audience exactly how to feel scene by scene (an obvious example of Jolie’s inexperience as a director), adds gravitas to proceedings. At the centre of all this is also a fantastic, star-making performance by Jack O’Connell. If all goes well come awards season, this could be the film that launches him (deservedly, after the excellent Starred Up and 71) into the Hollywood A-list. It’s just a pity that everything else falls so flat. Unbroken is a film that has been nearly 60 years in the making, and yet it still doesn’t quite feel finished.