Any one of the millions who’ve adorned their sofas or local cinemas in the past to see films such as Saving Private Ryan and The Railway Man, know full well that any storyline centred around: war, suffering, imprisonment, requires a complete picture comprising tempestuous realism and a talent for engrossment. With Unbroken – her second professional venture in the world of directing – Angelina Jolie appears to have focused too much on the visual side of those key components, while almost completely ignoring the more emotive areas of the narrative.
For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of Unbroken: the biopic tells the harrowingly humble tale of former US Olympic distance runner and WW2 prisoner of war survivor; Louis Zamperini’s journey from his local childhood running tracks in Torrance, California – briefly pitting at his USC collegiate athletics career before continuing on – to the Japanese P.O.W camps of Ōfuna and Ōmori.
Now to me: that sounds like quite an extensive rollercoaster of emotion to say the least. However that is what was so noticeably absent from the majority of the film. Considering the fact that Louis – portrayed with consummate passion and rigour by Jack O’Connell – is brutally tested and coarsely tormented by the seemingly callous Mutsuhiro Watanabe – otherwise known as ‘The Bird’ – to a point where many a man would submit; I rarely found myself immersed in this savage world of trials and tribulations that Jolie and her team worked tirelessly to envisage and supposedly create. In fact, without a collection of glowing portrayals, from a debatably modest – in terms of industrial prominence – cast of lead actors, of their respective roles, its difficult to amass much else to warrant any form of adulation. An aspect of the production that the director may well view with both: contrition and audacity in equal measure.
The real saving graces of this floppy, disjointed deluge of Japanese character assassination blended with a stereotypical yank sense of propagandistic ignorance are the intensely alluring showcasing of Zamperini and Watanabe’s (Miyavi) conflict-induced, multi-dimensional relationship as well as legendary cinematographer: Roger Deakins’ – who’s recent works include Skyfall & No Country For Old Men – systematically subtle yet effervescent visuals. Most notably: the high-octane scenes on-board the B-24 Liberator aircraft and the lengthy sequence in which Louis and two of his comrades: Mac (Finn Wittrock) and Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) are stranded at sea.
It was always going to be an uphill struggle for the moderately decorated actress to take on and successfully transform an adaptation penned by the seasoned creative duo that is: the Coen Brothers, from script to screen. Which begs the question: why weren’t Joel and Ethan, or any other more experienced directors signed to the project before Jolie? – While also reinforcing the belief of many that the only auteurs capable of bringing a Coen screenplay to life; is the brothers themselves.
Taking all of the above into account, what we’re left with is a roll of film that would view far more comfortably as a documentary than a somewhat over-hyped intended-blockbuster, that utterly reeks of an inexperienced director’s desperation to go big-time before they had even given themselves the chance to mould their own signature style. It’s an admirable effort and a fitting tribute to the defining chapters of Zamperini’s life, but ultimately it falls considerably short of expectation.
Words by Alex Graham