Unbroken was one of those films that had “Oscar bait” written on the script before the ink had dried on the title. Based on Laura Hillenbrand‘s account of the incredible true life story of Louis Zamperini, directed by Angelina Jolie and written by the Coen brothers, it seemed like Unbroken was a dead cert for Academy gold. Except it wasn’t. It only ended up being nominated for three technical awards and walked away empty handed. Now, I’m not saying that a film’s worth is measured in awards, but Unbroken does give us a rare insight into what happens when a pandering, couldn’t-have-been-further-up-the-Academy’s-street-if-it-tried, prestige pic ends up without the awards it was so clearly purpose built for.
Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an American athlete who competed in the 1936 Olympics, and his subsequent life as a soldier. After surviving a near-fatal aircraft crash in the ocean, Zamperini and several crewmates are left adrift and struggle to survive in shark-infested waters for 47 days. Zamperini’s thick streak of the worst luck in the world continues when the only rescue they eventually get is at the hand of the Japanese Navy, where they are dragged back to land and forced to work in a prisoner-of-war camp. The cast are all great. Jack O’Connell gives a brilliant, grounded performance as Zamperini and anchors the film. Dohmnall Gleeson has always been a safe pair of hands and continues his run here. No complaints here about the cast.
Zamperini’s story is absolutely incredible, no denying that. The man deserves the utmost respect for being a complete embodiment of the perseverance of the human spirit. Having read some interviews with the man himself, he seemed like a genuinely humble and modest man. Trouble is, I didn’t get much of that from the film. It didn’t take long for the film to seem like every other war film. I was disappointed with how generic everything felt. The dialogue was just riffing on the standards of the genre and nothing seemed particularly new or exciting. I wasn’t expecting the film to reinevent the wheel or anything, but I was expecting them to fully sell this incredible man’s life story with some degree of reality. It feels like a bog-standard fictional war film when it should feel like a personal story.
I don’t know what happened script-wise. When I hear the Coens are involved in anything, I get about 500% more interested than I would with a normal film. The film officially has four writers responsible for the screenplay and I’m willing to bet the Coens did an early draft and buggered off because there is barely any of their trademark wit and quality in the final product. I find it insane that between four Academy recognised nominees and winners, they still couldn’t pull anything above average out of the hat. What disappoints me is that the script feels like a committee project, ticking off Academy pleasing boxes instead of conveying the visceral reality of Zamperini’s life. We should feel his highs and lows. I barely felt anything and that troubles me in a bunch of ways.
The film is not bad by any stretch of the imagination. It does what it sets out to do and occasionally manages some powerful moments. There’s one scene, depicted on the film poster, where the mentally and physically exhausted is told to lift a heavy beam by his captors or be shot. Zamperini complies and is told to hold it. The sheer defiance that Zamperini displays when he lifts the beam over his head is awesome stuff. It’s genuinely inspirational. These moments are few and far between though and the film seems content in repeating the same ideas over and over again until you get the point that maybe a POW camp wasn’t the best place to spend any length of time.
The film should be commended for its excellent effects. It uses seamless transitions between physical and digital stuff to serve the story and it’s great. The fantastic Roger Deakins also makes the film look sumptuous, with some achingly beautiful shots in amongst the necessary nasty and gritty ones.
Unbroken is an ordinary tribute to an extraordinary man. I liked it enough, but it didn’t really get past the lazy Sunday afternoon viewing status for me. You may get more mileage out of it than I did, but I couldn’t help but feel a massive opportunity had been missed in translating Louis Zamperini‘s story from page to screen.
Genre: Biography, Drama, War | Distributor: Universal Pictures |BD Release Date: 4th May 2015 (UK) | Rating: 15 | Director: Angelina Jolie | Cast: Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund | Buy:Unbroken [Blu-ray]