The taming of Unbroken
For her second film as a director, Angelina Jolie has elected to go down the old-school Hollywood route: an inspirational war picture about athlete-turned-soldier Louis Zamperini, who survived weeks adrift in an open boat after his plane was shot down over the Pacific during World War II and then endured a horrific period in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
Though high-minded and well intentioned – as well as being conceived on an epic scale – there’s something faintly stodgy and safety-first about Unbroken. Jolie does, however, get things off to a cracking start. She introduces Zamperini in his role as a B-52 bombardier on a flight as the United States is pushing the Japanese back across the Pacific.
Zamperini (played by Starred Up’s Jack O’Connell) drops his bombs, then has to grapple with a stuck bomb-bay door as his plane takes vicious fire from enemy fighters. Jolie films the sequence with a rackety, clanging realism that puts you right in the cockpit.
Unfortunately, things aren’t maintained at this intense pitch. Zamperini’s story breaks down neatly into a three-act structure, and Unbroken appears to take its cue rather too readily from this well-made, conventional narrative design.
Echoes of other films
Picked on as an Italian immigrant, the boy Zamperini turns out to possess proper athletic chops (first revealed after he is discovered peering up girls’ skirts at a sports meet, incidentally). He goes on to make the US Olympic team for the 1936 games and, though he doesn’t win a medal, his storming final lap wins admiring reviews.
Next, after being shot down during the war, he ends up in a rubber dinghy with two other survivors, and drifts for weeks on the open ocean, fending off sharks and eating raw albatross. Then comes the final third: a fey, sadistic Japanese camp commandant develops an unhealthy interest in him, subjecting him to curious partiality one moment, barbaric cruelty the next.
This is a true story, right enough, but there are inevitable echoes of other films: Chariots of Fire, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Though apparently keen to stick to the facts, Jolie’s stolidly conventional approach to the material hardly freshens it up. (Rather surreally, the first names on the script credits are Joel and Ethan Coen, but I can’t believe they would ever have sanctioned the you’re-gonna-be-somebody clichés that infest much of the early part of the film.)
O’Connell, so eye-catching in the likes of ’71 and Starred Up, makes an impressive step up to the Hollywood big leagues, but the flared-nostril emoting required of him tends to swamp the wary-eyed everymannishness of his recent roles.
As for Jolie, where does this leave her? Unbroken is undoubtedly being positioned as awards bait, and the goodwill she has inside and outside Hollywood may generate some Oscar nominations.
But like her first film, the Bosnian war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, there’s a reined-in, by-the-book quality to much of the film-making that doesn’t exactly add to its impact. Zamperini’s is an inspiring story all right, but in Jolie’s hands it’s all a bit “inspirational” (quote-unquote). – © Guardian News & Media 2015