Review: Unbroken (2014)

A beautifully realised wartime drama with a star-making performance from Jack O'Connell

“If you can take it, you can make it.” These are the inspirational words of Pete Zamperini to his younger brother Louie, which are writ large over Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s sophomore effort in the director’s chair. A sweeping Second World War drama that focuses on Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini’s remarkable life spent as an Olympian, bombardier and a Japanese prisoner of war, it arrives in the UK on Boxing Day and is a likely awards contender at the fast-approaching Oscars early next year.

Taking a page from Louie’s indomitable spirit playbook, it took 57 years of development hell to get his story from script to screen. It wasn’t until author Laura Hillenbrand’s attention was captured by a press clipping of young running phenom Zamperini, whilst researching her first non-fiction book Seabiscuit: An American Legend, that the ball got rolling. After the success of Hillenbrand’s New York Times best selling debut, she contacted Louie and decided to make his life story the subject of her next book. Unbroken was published by Random House in 2010, winning critical praise and awards on its release.

The combination of Hillenbrand’s passionate writing, Zamperini’s spirit, and huge book sales, pushed Universal Pictures to finally green-light the long gestating tale of one man’s relentless will to survive in the face of impossible odds. Screenwriters Richard LaGravenses and William Nicholson penned the original screenplay that was shopped around town as an open director’s assignment to Hollywood’s elite shot callers, and Jolie took the bait. It was a gamble for the Oscar-winning actress, who was coming off the back of her first foray in the director’s chair, namely In the Land of Blood and Honey, a small Bosnian war drama that didn’t find favour with critics and audiences alike. The eyes of the film industry would be on her, and a first class ticket to movie jail would be waiting for her if she fell short.

For all of Jolie’s inexperience behind the camera, her cinematic allure proved to be strong, as she recruited master cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Alexandre Desplat, who have a total of seventeen Oscar nominations between them. If nothing else, the film’s audio and visual wartime fidelity would be second to none. Significantly, a handsomely produced historical epic without an equally charismatic leading man would meet the same fate as Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven and The Alamo, becoming a box office bomb and an awards season dud. As the old filmmaking saying goes, “directing is ninety percent casting” – Louie Zamperini’s shoes were going to be hard to fill. Over the years, a string of high-profile actors, from Tony Curtis to Nicholas Cage, had been linked to the role; ultimately all had passed due to the fear of not doing justice to the real-life hero on the silver screen.

The relatively unknown British actor Jack O’Connell, whose explosive performance in prison drama Starred Up had marked him out as a star on the rise, became the unlikely but inspired choice to play the leading role of an Olympian and war hero. The supporting roles of Louie’s flight crew, Russell Allen ‘Phil’ Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), Hugh ‘Cup’ Cuppernell (Jai Courtney) and Francis ‘Mac’ McNamara (Finn Wittrock), also represented an exciting opportunity for a new generation of actors to step into the awards season limelight. The linchpin of the casting process was the part of Mutsushiro ‘The Bird’ Watanabe, a Japanese prison guard, who had tormented Louie in several POW Camps. It was the battle of wills between these two men that underlined Unbroken’s poignant message of forgiveness. The tattooed rock star Miyavi, who was born in Osaka and was more used to slapping guitar strings than beating people, was persuaded to play the sadistic war criminal by Jolie’s directorial vision, as it emphasised the continuing reconciliation between Japan and America over a litany of World War Two atrocities. After nearly six decades of waiting, production finally began on Zamperini’s astounding life story, but would it still be as compelling to a modern audience raised on comic book superheroes?

Unbroken opens on a sun-kissed squadron of B-24: Liberator aircraft on a bombing mission in the middle of the South Pacific’s flak-riddled skies, with an enlisted Louie manning a B-24’s bombing sight as all hell breaks loose around him. It’s a sequence that proves Jack O’Connell is every inch the movie star as he bounces around the cockpit and battles damaged bomb-bay doors, oozing charisma. This is intercut with flashbacks of Zamperini’s troubled childhood marked by petty theft, bullying and his love of drinking beer from a dummy milk bottle in the dustbowl of Torrance, California. This adolescent framing device culminates in a pivotal scene between Louie and his older brother Peter, who convinces his younger sibling to put aside his unruly behaviour and tryout for the school’s athletic team. It’s one of the film’s most touching moments and interweaves the themes of faith, resilience and redemption, foreshadowing Louie’s spiritual journey from agnostic to true believer in The Almighty.

What follows is a balancing act between Louie’s pre-war Chariots of Fire-style exploits on the running track, propelling him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics’ 5000-metre race, and his wartime days spent as a bombardier, dreaming of competing at the Tokyo Games. These shifting timelines are spliced together when Louie and his flight crew are assigned to a flying bucket of bolts and sent on a rescue mission that ends up with them ditching into the ocean. At first sight, three men in a life-raft doesn’t seem to be the most dynamic of settings. It’s the nuanced interplay of different personal perspectives, ranging from Louie’s burgeoning spiritual awakening, Phil’s cautious optimism, to Mac’s fatalism, that creates a potent mix of dramatic tension. Their determination and resourcefulness to survive lost at sea is severely tested, battling starvation, shark attacks and a Japanese fighter plane, which makes this the standout chapter in the film’s 137-minute running time.

The narrative momentum slows considerably as the dark shadow of a Japanese battleship looms across the life-raft. The rolling ocean waves are replaced by the jungles of Kwajalein Atoll. Louie finds himself confined to a wooden hut and subjected to daily beatings with only fleeting contact with the similarly imprisoned Phil. And so begins the film’s lengthy and relentless focus on Louie’s time spent as a POW suffering at the hands of Mutsushiro Watanabe. The confrontation between the two men feels at times stilted, as Louie simply turns the other cheek in the face of bamboo cane attacks and ritual humiliation. His choice to internalise the pain and suffering starts out as an heroic statement that slowly turns to pitch-black nihilism, as one grim prison camp is exchanged for another. Louie disappears into an existence of struggling to put one foot in front of the other, which is understandable given his horrific circumstances. The problem is Louie’s literal ‘taking it on the chin’ philosophy doesn’t allow for a deeper understanding of his personal resolve to keep on fighting against the odds. This is especially apparent in Louie’s final showdown with Watanabe, as he holds a train track sleeper above his head in an act of defiance that breaks the prison guard. It’s a moment that sums up the lack of dramatic punch needed to get the audience cheering in their seats.

Having taken an eon to produce, Unbroken proves that Louie Zamperini’s life story is an incredible journey of resilience but sometimes a frustrating one to watch. Jolie has crafted a traditional Hollywood biography that is beautifully realised, with a standout performance from Jack O’Connell. Interestingly, the most assured sequence in the film is the opening aircraft battle, which could spell a future for Jolie directing blockbusters like a reboot of her own Tomb Raider franchise.

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